The Ontario Court of Appeal has reduced a $1.45 million award to a former Walmart employee in Windsor as part of a wrongful dismissal settlement.
Jae C. Hong / AP
Walmart appealed a $1.45 million wrongful dismissal award to a former employee and it was reduced to $410,000.
The Ontario Court of Appeal has reduced a $1.45 million award to a former Walmart employee in Windsor, cutting her wrongful dismissal settlement by more than $1 million.
In a decision released in late May, Justice John Laskin lessened Meredith Boucher’s award to $410,000 saying it is more consistent with other cases and a big enough award to deter other employers in similar circumstances.
Boucher is still entitled to $200,000 for her constructive dismissal, $100,000 in punitive damages from Walmart, plus $100,000 for intentional infliction of mental suffering and $10,000 in punitive damages from her former manager, Jason Pinnock.
Boucher sued Walmart in 2009 soon after she resigned. The 10-year employee had excellent performance reviews until six months before her resignation.
At trial, she testified that Pinnock started harassing her after the 2009 Victoria Day weekend when she refused to falsify logs that recorded cleaning frequency in the bakery and temperatures at various times in the food areas of the Tecumseh Rd. East store.
Subsequently he belittled, humiliated and demeaned her continuously, often in front of co-workers. She complained about Pinnock’s misconduct to Walmart’s senior management but they said her complaints were “unsubstantiated” and she would be held accountable for them. In July she was transferred to the night shift.
At the end of her Nov. 18th shift, Pinnock again berated Boucher because 10 extra skids of products delivered to the store overnight had not been unloaded. He grabbed her by the elbow in front of a group of co-workers and told her to prove to him that she could count to 10. Then he told her to count out loud along with him. She was so humiliated she left the store.
Four days later, Boucher sent Walmart an email stating that she did not intend to come back to work until her complaints about Pinnock were satisfactorily resolved. They never were and she did not return to work. In early December 2009 she sued Walmart and Pinnock for constructive dismissal and other damages.
Boucher’s employment contract said she was entitled to two weeks of pay per year of service or 20 weeks. After she resigned, the company actually paid her for 32 weeks. Nevertheless, she sought aggravated and punitive damages.
In October 2012, a jury of three men and three women found that she had been constructively dismissed and awarded her $1.45 million.
The Ontario Court of Appeal agreed with the jury that Walmart’s conduct was reprehensible and punitive damages against the company were warranted. However, the appeal court said that by itself, the very high aggravated damages award against the company ($200,000) sent a strong enough message and would likely have a deterrent effect.
The court also suggested that the gravity and duration of Walmart and Pinnock’s misconduct wasn’t as grave as in several other previously decided cases where punitive damages were upheld on appeal.
Therefore the appeals by Walmart and Pinnock were successful, and punitive damages against them were reduced to $100,000 and $10,000 respectively.
Hicks Morley LLP associate Shane Todd notes that the punitive damages awarded against Walmart at trial by the jury were almost twice as high as the largest award in other reported employment law cases.
“By reducing the punitive damages award so significantly in this case, the Court of Appeal has reaffirmed the principles of rationality and proportionality that must underlie punitive damages awards,” he says.
But Rudner MacDonald LLP partner Natalie C. MacDonald believes the Court of Appeal did not place sufficient weight on Walmart’s inadequate investigation of Boucher’s complaints.
“If we are going to stop this kind of workplace harassment, awards have to be high enough to send out a strong message to delinquent employers,” MacDonald says.