By Sheryl Smolkin
Read this article and comments at Moneyville.ca
In a recently released decision, a B.C. court awarded a liquor store manager with an abrasive style $183,000 in pay and damages for wrongful dismissal
Stephanie Vernon went to work at the Liquor Distribution Branch when she was 18 and worked there for 30 years. She was promoted many times, and became a senior store manager in 2006. In early 2010, one of her employees made a written complaint that she had been bullied, intimidated and picked on. The liquor board interviewed Vernon, the complainant and several other employees and then immediately fired Vernon.
Vernon sued, claiming she was dismissed without cause and without reasonable notice. In addition she claimed aggravated and punitive damages because of the way she was dismissed.
The liquor branch said Vernon engaged in gross workplace misconduct including bullying, swearing and intimidating subordinates. They justified dismissing her on the basis that her conduct demonstrated a complete lack of respect for her employees and her position.
The judge hearing her wrongful dismissal case ruled that Vernon was a tough boss, prone to swearing, but her performance reviews were outstanding and her record unblemished until the complaint that led to her dismissal in May 2010. He also noted that the liquor branch was a male-dominated workforce that operated on military lines where profanity was common.
The judge said Vernon was entitled to a warning that her conduct was not acceptable. If she had then continued with such conduct, it is possible the liquor branch would have had grounds to dismiss her, but they did not have such grounds in May 2010.
A regulation governing the B.C. public sector limits damages for wrongful dismissal to 18 months, so the Court capped her award at $97,173.10 – 18 months’ salary, minus the amount she earned during the notice period. She also received pension contributions for that year and a half.
Vernon also got $35,000 in aggravated damages because of the callous way she was fired. She was summoned to a meeting, told her conduct was shameful and that she was an embarrassment to the liquor branch. Then she was suspended without pay and left in limbo for six weeks until her employer finally got around to telling her she was fired.
She was also awarded punitive damages of $50,000 because at the termination meeting, the liquor branch said they would only give her a reference letter if she resigned. The Judge found that offering a reference letter as a carrot to resign and avoid a law suit for wrongful termination was “conduct which is properly the subject matter of retribution, deterrence and denunciation.”
The message this case sends is that both an employee’s actions and the employer’s subsequent handling of the situation will be considered in a case for wrongful dismissal. Employees are entitled to know and respond to the case against them, and particularly in a union situation, some form of progressive discipline may be required before termination.