In General Motors of Canada Ltd. v. Johnson, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the Ontario Superior Court of Justice’s decision that the Employee had been constructively dismissed and awarding damages in the amount of approximately $159,999.92, consisting of wrongful dismissal damages, special damages and Wallace damages.
The Employee alleged that he was a victim of racism when two co-workers refused to undergo a systems training session with the Employee on the basis of the employee’s race. As a result of the alleged occurrence, the Employee went on a medical leave. The Employer investigated into the Employee’s allegation of discrimination, and concluded that there was no evidence of racially motivated conduct. Despite the findings of the investigation, the Employee did not return to work. Approximately 2 years later, the Employee was found to be medically fit to return to work by the Employer’s physicians, resulting in the Employer initiating steps to have the Employee return to the workplace. The Employee refused indicating that he was unable to work in any of the Employer’s environments where he might come into contact with the co-workers who were the subject of the Employee’s complaint, and that he would only return to specific positions. The Employer was unable to comply with the Employee’s requests, resulting in the Employee initiating litigation against the Employer for constructive dismissal.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice found that the co-workers’ reasons for not attending the training session with the Employee were “solely racially-based”; that the Employer’s and the co-workers’ conduct created a poisoned work environment for the Employee; that the Employer failed to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the Employee’s complaint; and, that the Employee was constructively dismissed. As a result, the Employee was awarded wrongful dismissal damages, special damages and Wallace damages in the total amount of $159,992.92.
The Employer appealed the decision to the Ontario Court of Appeal, which appeal was allowed. In reaching this decision, the Ontario Court of Appeal found that the Ontario Superior Court of Justice’s finding of racially motivated conduct was unreasonable and unsupported by the evidence at Trial, and that the finding of a poisoned work environment leading to constructive dismissal was unreasonable. On this latter point, the Ontario Court of Appeal stated, “As a matter of law, the offending conduct must be persistent and repeated unless the incident in question is sufficient, standing alone, to taint the entire workplace.” As a result, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice’s decision was set aside and the matter against the Employer was dismissed.
Impact of Decision on Employers
The above decision reinforces the threshold that must be met by an employee to succeed in demonstrating that constructive dismissal has occurred on the basis of a poisoned work environment. Specifically, the conduct that is subject to the complaint must be persistent and repeated to create a poisoned work environment. However, a single incident may be sufficient by itself to establish a poisoned workplace. While the onus is on the employee to demonstrate that a poisoned work environment has been created, employers should ensure that they address any allegations of constructive dismissal, or events which may lead to such an allegation, as soon as possible and seek the assistance of Employment Law counsel.
Impact of Decision on Employees
As indicated above, the employee bears the onus of demonstrating that a poisoned work environment has been established, thereby resulting in constructive dismissal. The decision referred to above demonstrates the difficulty that can occur in attempting to establish this form of constructive dismissal. Therefore, an employee should seek the assistance of Employment Law counsel should they believe that they have been constructively dismissed as a result of a poisoned work environment.
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