After an employee was fired during the Christmas holidays following her complaints about workplace harassment, an Ontario court awarded her aggravated and punitive damages, calling the termination “beyond ‘cold and brusque’” and “cowardly”.

The Facts

Shortly after being hired by the employer, the employee began being harassed by another employee. The other employee was intentionally rude to her and routinely belittled her when they were alone and in front of others. This behaviour continued until December 2016, when she reported one of the incidents to her direct supervisor.

Two days later, another incident occurred; she was upset and told her direct supervisor that she wanted to go home. Her supervisor saluted her and said “goodbye”. After this, she decided to speak to the owner because she felt her concerns were not being taken seriously. She explained what had happened and stated that she needed some time away. Noting that business had been slow, she asked the owner whether she could have a layoff, but the owner said he could not lay her off. After telling him she did not want to be in the workplace, the owner told her she could take the next day off and that they would “figure this out in the new year.” Before she left on that day, December 22, the owner asked her whether if he laid her off and the other employee was not present, she would come back.  She said “yes” and he said “okay.”

However, on December 28, 2016, she found a letter stuck in the back door of her house. It was a termination letter signed by the owner and dated December 22, 2016. The letter informed her that she had been terminated with cause on December 22 “as a result of [her] behaviour.” It stated that she had lost her temper towards the other employee in front of a customer and that her unprofessional conduct on this and other occasions was the reason for her termination.

Following her termination, the employee’s existing depression worsened and she was unable to work.

The employee sued the employer for aggravated and punitive damages, among others.

The Decision

The court rejected the employee’s first two claims, which were for: 1)injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect for discrimination in employment on the basis of gender disability, and 2) intentional infliction of mental suffering and emotional distress. On both issues, the court did not find, on a balance of probabilities, that the claims had been proven.

However, the court did find in favour of the employee for her claim of punitive damages. The employee had alleged that the employer had allowedbullying, violence and harassment in the workplace and that she had been terminated because she complained of these behaviours.

The court found that the employee was harassed in the workplace and that the employer, rather than investigating, terminated her. The court stated:

“As such, I find that the employer’s conduct was malicious, oppressive and high-handed and must be deterred. Punitive damages are awarded only where compensatory damages are insufficient to deter.”

The court therefore awarded the employee $10,000 in punitive damages.

The court also found in the employee’s favour for her claim of aggravated damages. She argued that the circumstances of her termination caused or contributed to her serious depression and she was therefore entitled to aggravated damages. The court stated:

“In this case, rather than “figuring this out in the new year” as [the owner] told the [employee] he would, the employer immediately terminated the [employee]’s employment without further discussion and delivered a termination letter during the Christmas holidays by sticking a letter in the back door. The manner of the termination was beyond “cold and brusque”; it was cowardly.”

The court found that the manner of termination did cause an aggravation of the employee’s pre-existing depression and that this was an appropriate case for aggravated or “moral” damages. It awarded the employee the sum of $20,000 for aggravated damages.

For Help

The Kitchener-Waterloo employment lawyers at Petker Campbell Postnikoff have many years of experience advising non-unionized employees and employers on a variety of workplace issues including termination and wrongful dismissal. Our team will walk you through the details of your dispute, advise you on your rights, responsibilities and obligations, and help you understand your options.  If your dispute cannot be settled through negotiation, we can represent you through mediation and the court process.

We represent clients throughout southern Ontario, including the communities of Cambridge, Guelph, Elmira, Brantford, Fergus, Elora and the surrounding area. Call 519-886-1204 or contact us online for a consultation.