By Sheryl Smolkin
Read this article and comments at Moneyville.ca
After a 10 year odyssey through the courts, a former building inspector for the Township of Galway-Cavendish, near Peterborough has been awarded $550,000 in punitive damages against his employer for wrongful dismissal.
A key message is this recently released decision is that employers who threaten to call the police to force an employee to resign are looking for trouble. And if they withhold relevant information that might help the employee defend himself in a criminal action, the consequences are even worse.
John Pate was the chief building official for the Townships of Galway and Cavendish from 1990 through early 1999. When the townships amalgamated, he accepted a demotion to building inspector and worked in this position for three months until his dismissal without notice on March 26, 1999.
At his 2009 trial for wrongful dismissal, the court heard that soon after taking on his new job, his new boss John Beaven alleged that irregularities had been uncovered regarding fees for building permits paid to Pate but not remitted to the township. Pate was told to resign or the matter would be handed over to the police. He was not provided with details of the allegations.
Pate did not resign and was charged with theft. Following a four-day criminal trial in December 2002, he was acquitted. At the trial, it was revealed that evidence in the Township’s possession was not provided to the Ontario Provincial Police. This included the results of a previous internal investigation prior to his termination which found Pate and others were innocent.
Pate launched a wrongful dismissal suit in 2003. In a 2009 judgment, the trial judge concluded that the Township’s actions were a contributing factor to the end of his marriage and family business. Pate also suffered public humiliation and his career as a municipal official never recovered.
The Township conceded the dismissal was wrongful and he got 16 months pay, without prejudice to his right to litigate his remaining claims. The judge also awarded him $7,500 in costs, $75,000 for emotional distress and $25,000 in punitive damages against the Township for withholding evidence.
The Township appealed, and in 2010 the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the punitive damages award should be set aside because the trial judge did not awarded Pate enough money. A new trial was ordered.
During the retrial in November 2011, the Judge noted that the Township’s misconduct occurred over 10 years without any apology and irrevocably changed the course of Pate’s life. He increased Pate’s award for punitive damages to $550,000 because of this “offensive and morally repugnant” conduct.