The High Cost of Workplace Abuse

Contributor, Richard Johnson.

rsz_0131-connect-and-kent-9307-zf-9033-14584-1-131Earlier this year, the Ontario Court of Appeal made an example of Mississauga employer Applied Consumer and Clinical Evaluations (ACCE ) when it ordered it to pay former employee Vicky Struckwick almost a quarter million dollars as compensation for her dismissal and the “campaign of abuse” she suffered in the workplace. The court’s ruling, which was highlighted in the media, was notable both for what the court awarded Ms. Strudwick, and for what it did not. It was also a clear message that workplace discrimination will not go unpunished.

Ms. Strudwick had worked for ACCE approximately 14 years when she began to lose her hearing as a result of a virus. Her employer’s response to her sudden disability was to wage an almost unbelievable campaign of harassment against her that included name calling and public belittling, as well as a refusal to accommodate her disability. This passage from the Court’s judgment paints a stark picture of the treatment Ms. Strudwick was made to endure:

… Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Camilleri tormented Ms. Strudwick for the specific purpose of making the work environment intolerable. For example, Ms. Camilleri would purposely give Ms. Strudwick instructions in a manner that prevented her from lip reading. Then, Ms. Camilleri would call Ms. Strudwick “stupid” for not understanding the instructions. Ms. Camilleri would chastise Ms. Strudwick for not answering the telephone. Mr. Hoffman demanded that Ms. Strudwick produce a doctor’s opinion as to the precise cause of her hearing loss. Since, as previously mentioned, the doctors were unable to identify the cause of Ms. Strudwick’s hearing loss and so instead she provided Mr. Hoffman with hearing test results. In response, Ms. Camilleri accused Ms. Strudwick of being “too cheap” to produce a doctor’s note. Ms. Camilleri suggested to Ms. Strudwick that she “just quit” and “go on disability”.

After suffering nearly seven months of abuse, Ms. Strudwick was fired, with an offer of 3 months’ severance on the condition that she signed a release in favour of the employer. When she declined to sign the release, ACCE took back the severance cheque.

Ms. Strudwick sued ACCE for wrongful dismissal and related legal claims related to the abuse, and sought a total of $240,000 in damages from her former employer. The judge who initially heard her case awarded her just over $100,000. Ms. Strudwick appealed this decision, arguing that this award was “simply too low”, given ACCE’s “extraordinarily egregious conduct”, and sought damages of over $1 million from the appellate court.

While the appeal court agreed that Ms. Struckwick was entitled to a higher award than what she received at trial, they disagreed on the amount, increasing her damages to over $247,000. This figure included compensation for her dismissal, as well as punitive and aggravated damages, and damages for both human rights violations and ACCE’s intentional infliction of mental suffering.

Ultimately, however, the court reduced this amount to $240,000 (plus $6,000 for lost benefits), since this was the damages limit specified in Ms. Struckwick’s original claim again ACCE. While the reduction was not significant, it may prompt legal counsel to think broadly (yet reasonably) when calculating a fired employee’s potential damages.

As for its greater take-home message, the decision in Strudwick v. ACCE is a strong reproach to a company that allowed personal feelings to dictate personnel decisions, and a clear statement that discrimination and harassment can have far-reaching negative consequences for all workplace stakeholders.

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