The Ontario Court of Appeal in Doyle v. Zochem Inc. affirmed a Superior Court of Justice decision to award $60,000 in moral damages plus $25,000.00 for human rights violations on top of notice to a woman who endured sexual harassment on the job, and was fired when she complained.
Melissa Doyle worked for Zochem Inc. for nine years, supervising a group of refinery workers. She was the only woman working at the company. Bill Rogers, the plant maintenance manager, subjected Doyle to repeated sexual harassment, making frequent inappropriate and belittling comments.
At a July 2011 production meeting, Doyle raised a series of safety concerns relating to operational logistics at the plant, unaware that the company had decided to terminate her employment. Rogers, who knew of her pending termination, demeaned Doyle in front of other employees. Doyle left the meeting in tears.
Doyle then made a complaint of sexual harassment against Rogers. Zochem did a cursory investigation and heard from Rogers, but did not give Doyle an opportunity to respond.
She was fired without cause just five days later.
Doyle filed a wrongful dismissal claim, seeking, among other things, moral damages for the manner of her dismissal. She also sought general damages for breach of the Ontario Human Rights Code, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.19, arising from the poisonous work environment and retaliatory termination following her complaint. Zochem defended itself by arguing that it had discovered just cause for her termination after the fact.
The trial judge found no evidence of just cause and determined that Doyle was wrongfully dismissed. She was awarded damages representing a ten-month notice period. After finding no documented concerns regarding her performance, the trial judge held that the manner of Doyle’s dismissal warranted an additional $60,000 in moral damages. The trial judge awarded a further $25,000 in damages for human rights violations, holding that Zochem had an obligation to investigate Doyle’s complaint properly, and that its hurried, biased investigation was insufficient.
The Court of Appeal dismissed Zochem’s appeal of the amount of damages awarded.
In the Court’s view, the amount of damages awarded to Doyle was not high enough to warrant intervention on appeal. Significantly, the Court rejected Zochem’s submission that the amount of damages awarded pursuant to the Human Rights Code should be deducted from the award of moral damages because the same conduct was the basis for both awards, noting that the awards of moral damages and Code damages served distinct legal purposes. As the Court explained, moral damages are awarded as a result of the manner of dismissal, where the employer “engages in conduct during the course of dismissal that is unfair or in bad faith”. Code damages, meanwhile, are remedial, and not punitive, in nature, and compensate “for the intrinsic value of the infringement of rights under the code. Such damages are compensation for lost of the right to be free from discrimination and the experience of victimization.”
Lessons for Employers
This decision highlights the importance of properly investigating employee complaints. Both the trial judge and appeal panel were critical of Zochem’s response to Doyle’s allegations. In order to avoid these issues:
- Employers should provide a safe and confidential process for an employee to lodge a complaint.
- The complainant should be removed from the environment while the investigation proceeds.
- If possible, an external party or trained human resources staff should conduct the investigation.
- If the investigation is conducted internally, it should proceed in as thorough, uniform, and unbiased a manner as possible, and notes of the interviews should be recorded in an impartial manner.
- The complainant should be informed of the outcome of the investigation as soon as possible.
The decision reinforces that both pre- and post-termination conduct of the employer will be considered, and may give rise to, an award of moral damages if the conduct is related to the manner of dismissal. In order to comply with their duty of good faith, employers should ensure that they engage in behavior that is respectful when carrying out the termination of an employee.
Lessons for Employees
This case also confirms that employees may be awarded amounts under various heads of damages in addition to notice, even if the underlying conduct overlaps. Employees who have been harassed and mistreated at work should seek advice from experienced Employment Law counsel to determine what different types of damages they may be entitled to receive from their employer.
Minken Employment Lawyers is your source for expert advice and advocacy on today’s employment law issues. Whether you are an employer or an employee, we can help. Contact us to see how.
Sign up for our e-Newsletter for the latest updates and case studies in employment law.