Appeal court ups damages by more than $100,000 for ‘malicious’ conduct meant to drive worker to quit
Michael Robinson, The Toronto Star
July 7, 2016.
A Mississauga company found to have mocked, humiliated and launched a “campaign of abuse” designed to force a deaf employee’s resignation has been ordered by Ontario’s top court to pay her $266,000.
The stinging Ontario Court of Appeal decision increased the original damages awarded to Vicky Strudwick by more than $100,000.
The result comes after four years of legal proceedings against her former employer, Applied Consumer and Clinical Evaluations (ACCE), for wrongful dismissal, breach of the human rights code and intentional infliction of mental suffering.
Her lawyer called the lawsuit the “worst employment case” he’s seen in 31 years of practising.
Less than a year after she suddenly became deaf, a condition doctors believe may have been caused by a virus, the 56-year-old was fired from the polling and research firm in May 2011.
By that time, she had worked there for more than 15 years and was making $12.85 per hour in her latest position.
Leading up to her dismissal, Strudwick “was belittled, isolated, humiliated and made to suffer the effects of her disability to the greatest extent possible,” the three-judge panel wrote. “This conduct was deliberate, malicious and designed to force Ms. Strudwick to quit a job she had held for almost 16 years.”
In an email to the Star, ACCE CEO Raymond Berta said his company “has been part of the Mississauga community for 30 years, with a solid track record of performance coupled with an inspiring corporate culture.
“This case occurred several years ago. As a good corporate citizen we have taken corrective action as reported and we have implemented procedures to prevent any reoccurrences.”
Andrew Hoffman, an ACCE general manager at the time, was named in the decision as “the primary participant” in Strudwick’s workplace harassment. He declined to comment on the case when reached by the Star. Also named was Strudwick’s immediate supervisor Liz Camilleri who “featured prominently in (her) despicable treatment” according to the judgment. Camilleri could not be reached by the Star for comment.
Both bosses”tormented (Strudwick) for the specific purpose of making the work environment intolerable,” the court noted in its sharply worded decision, citing evidence presented in court last summer.
This included advising co-workers not to talk to Strudwick and to telephone her so she would purposely miss the call, providing her superiors opportunities to chastise her.
When Strudwick requested workplace accommodations – including a Canadian Hearing Society assessment, visual fire alarm, a specially adapted phone for the hearing impaired and permission to turn her desk around so she could see people as they approached her – Hoffman denied them, taking the position they were “unnecessary,” the court decision stated.
In an interview, Strudwick told the Star she had mixed emotions about the judgment.
“It doesn’t put this to rest,” she said. “I have to continue to live through this ordeal.
“It was a nightmare, that part of my life, to wake up and dread going to work, but it’s a job so you put up with it.”
The court noted Strudwick was fired after Hoffman called her a “goddamned fool” over a “stunt” she pulled at a workplace event. The reason for the termination was for “insubordination and wilful misconduct.”
Her lawyer Christopher Du Vernet told the Star he believes the case puts Ontario employers on notice that disabled workers have to be treated fairly and with respect.
“This is a warning signal for any employer contemplating disregard of employees’ human rights and it will cost them dearly if they do so,” he said. “This is a woman who came in on weekends, came in early, stayed late, her work was her life. And then she’s fired when she became disabled.”
The decision notes the company argued its penalties be deflected onto Hoffman, whose employment was terminated after Berta returned from medical leave. The court rejected this argument, stating the company “cannot escape responsibility” for the actions of its employees.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Hoffman’s employment with ACCE ended in November 2014. A statement of claim obtained by the Star shows he has sued Berta, his former boss, for wrongful dismissal following a “negligent workplace investigation” into allegations that he had harassed someone within his workplace. Hoffman’s lawyer declined to comment but said the case is ongoing.
In response, Berta has counterclaimed for damages. A statement of defence and counterclaim alleges Hoffman stole from the company and mistreated employees. Neither Berta nor his lawyer could be reached by the Star on Wednesday.
For Strudwick, it “took a lot of prayer and support from friends, family, and the Canadian Hearing Society” but she has since learned how to accept her hearing loss, work with it and move on from her workplace “nightmare.”