Lawyers’ criticisms can be perilous

Date: July , 2011
Author: Daniel Lublin
Publication: Metro

Court’s judgment signals intolerance for aggressive demand letter

“It is easier to be critical than correct.” – Benjamin Disraeli
Today, much of the workforce feels empowered to complain.  When upset about their boss or their job, these employees no longer visit their doctors seeking a note for a leave of absence.  Now they just call their lawyers.  But what happens when a lawyer’s letter goes too far?  One B.C. employee recently found out the hard way.
Sukhwinder Grewal and her boss Dalbir Sohi had a rocky relationship from the get-go.  Grewal, a branch manager for the Khalsa Credit Union in B.C., was frequently on the receiving end of Sohi’s criticism.  Deeming his contempt to be unwarranted, Grewal often responded with letters defending herself and her actions.  Sohi viewed those letters as insubordinate and disrespectful.
Matters came to a head when Sohi discovered that Grewal’s personal home mortgage, through the credit union, was inputted incorrectly.  He believed that Grewal had inappropriately received a personal benefit and wrote a memo to the credit union referring to Grewal’s mortgage as a “scandal” and raising other issues he had with her performance.  Before Sohi could question Grewal, she went on disability leave.
Upon her return to work, Grewal learned that during her leave Sohi had disclosed her alleged mortgage “scandal” during the credit union’s governance hearing and that her name appeared in a public document.  Believing this was highly inappropriate, Grewal’s lawyer sent a letter to Sohi accusing him of creating a pretext to dismiss her and demanding that he apologize to Grewal and acknowledge that his allegations were baseless and brought in bad faith to harm Grewal and her reputation.  The letter concluded by threatening to sue Sohi if he did not apologize.  The credit union responded on Sohi’s behalf claiming that, through her lawyer’s letter, Grewal had just resigned.
At a recent trial, the judge determined that, but for her lawyer’s last letter, Grewal would have been wrongfully dismissed.  Although Grewal’s concerns may have been justified, the letter from Grewal’s own lawyer tipped the scales against her.  According to the judge, that letter “permanently undermined the employment relationship” and was cause for her own dismissal.
Employees are entitled to criticize their bosses and their employers without fear of immediate dismissal.  However, there is a limit.  In the quest to find the appropriate balance between criticisms and accusations, sometimes even the lawyers need counsel.