In this day and age, it should come as no surprise that even a law firm practising employment and labour relations law has become entangled in its own internal drama of wrongful dismissal and sexual harassment.
Part I: Revelry Leads to Harassment
The firm in question is Mathews, Dinsdale & Clark LLP and the event that sparked it all was a party hosted by the firm in January 2009 for law students participating in its annual arbitration competition.
The party allegedly involved plenty of free flowing liquor, lap dances, and groping of a female attendee by 44-year old firm lawyer David Cowling. Everything might have passed under the radar but for a 13-page report filed the next day by one of the firm’s female lawyers, Sarah Diebel. Relying on the firm’s sexual harassment policy, Diebel detailed complaints about being inappropriately touched while dancing, specifically naming David Cowling.
Part II: Investigation Leads to Multi-Million Dollar Defamation Suit
The firm responded to Diebel’s report by launching an internal investigation. As part of the process, the firm asked Adrian Jakibchuk, one of the firm’s lawyers who was in attendance on the night in question, to provide an account of the party. Jakibchuk complied and provided details confirming Cowling’s inappropriate conduct. The firm then sought an external investigation.
Following the investigation, the results of which were not made public, Cowling resigned and filed a $2.3 million defamation suit against both Diebel and Jakibchuck. The firm later provided Cowling with a letter stating its belief that he had conducted himself professionally during the event in question, and Cowling has since dropped the defamation suit.
Part III: Cooperation with Investigation Leads to Reprisals
Jakibchuk, who cooperated with the firm’s investigation, left the firm in May 2010. He has since filed a $1.3 million suit against the firm for wrongful dismissal, explaining that he became ostracized in the workplace and was not given new work assignments after providing details about Cowling’s conduct. In his claim, Jakibchuk states that he felt compelled to leave the firm’s poisoned work environment and that the firm had breached the Human Rights Code by penalizing him for complying with the firm’s own harassment policy.
Mathews, Dinsdale & Clark LLP has not yet filed a statement of defence.
Points to Note
Sexual harassment continues to be a minefield for the 21st century workplace. The above case illustrates that handling harassment is often not a simple, linear process. Even where companies have policies on handling harassment, issues such as wrongful dismissal can arise when implementation of the policies competes with such possible variables as conflicting interests and reprisals.
Since the potential for litigation can be high, both employers and employees are wise to consult with an employment lawyer to assist with foreseeing and navigating the multitude of potential issues and complications.
Minken Employment Lawyers is your source for expert advice and advocacy on today’s employment law issues.
For more details, see: The Toronto Star (‘Night of debauchery’ haunts law firm, by Brett Popplewell, April 5, 2011).