Author: Daniel A. Lublin
What happens when an employee is assaulted by a supervisor? As an Ontario court just ruled, when push comes to shove, the employer may also be responsible.
Richard Ayotte was a pushy boss, literally. Ayotte was seen as critical, intimidating and aggressive, thinking it would achieve results.
In 2005, Ayotte took his assertive approach too far. When one of his staff, Marta Piresferreira allegedly failed to book a meeting, Ayotte yelled and swore at her, refused to listen to her explanation, and pushed her backwards hard enough that she hit a filing cabinet. When Piresferreira followed him to his office to protest his behavior, Ayotte threatened her with probation.
Piresferreira later returned to work expecting an apology. Instead, she was given a Performance Improvement Plan requiring her to report to Ayotte daily or face discipline, including termination. She refused to sign, went home, and complained to the company, Bell Mobility.
The same day, Piresferreira received letter from Bell stating it had spoken to Ayotte and that he would apologize – then the case would be closed. No one spoke with Piresferreira to get her side of the story or to express concern for what had happened.
During the months that followed, Bell made several attempts to get Piresferreira to return to her job. Eventually Bell just claimed that she had resigned. Piresferreira was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and never returned to work.
At trial, the judge held Bell responsible for Ayotte’s actions, and for failing to treat Piresferreira with civility and respect. It seemed Bell was more interested in applying the PIP, than properly investigating her complaint. Piresferreira was constructively dismissed and awarded over $500,000 in damages because she could not work again. Bell appealed.
Recently, the Court of Appeal agreed that Piresferreira was constructively dismissed, but reduced the damages to a year of lost wages and $45,000 for mental distress arising from her dismissal. Both Bell and Ayotte were responsible to pay the award.
This case serves as a caution to aggressive bosses, and a reminder to employers, that failing to properly address workplace harassment may render both the boss and employer responsible for damages.