One would expect that a law firm would be well versed in how to treat its employees fairly and respectfully. Like many cases in employment law, many employers fall short of this standard. When the employer is a law firm, it attracts unnecessary attention to the case, particularly one which has attracted an award of aggravated damages. Aggravated damages are awarded when an employer has fallen short of the implied standard of good faith and fair dealing, as was found in this case out of British Columbia.
What Happened Here
The employee was an articling student. This is the time period required for practical training before admission to the Bar. She had completed 4 months of the required 12-month term when she was fired. It was alleged as the grounds for her termination that she was conspiring with her boyfriend, also an articling student with another law firm, to compete with her employer in his practice of defending persons charged with impaired driving.
After reviewing the allegations of just cause against her, the judge found that the law firm had no cause to terminate and awarded to the law student wrongful dismissal damages for the remaining term of her articling period in the amount of $19,000.
More significantly, however, the judge also ordered an award of aggravated damages of $50,000. The case is a lesson to employers across Canada on what not to do. Here are some of the salient facts:
- The student was not given a chance to explain her side of the story before she was confronted with the allegations of wrongdoing and subsequently fired. This is a fundamental step when terminating an employee for serious cause allegations. The company should always conduct a fulsome investigation. This was far from the case here.
- The law firm then sued the student, claiming theft and trespass. The firm served the claim on the student in front of her classmates when she was attending the Bar Admissions Course.
- The firm was found to have falsely claimed in the lawsuit that she was deceitful and dishonest.
- Given the accusations against her, she was unable to finish her articles and was unemployable in the legal profession.
- The firm was steadfast with these allegations in the lawsuit for 3 years and at trial.
The student’s life was clearly a shambles because of this conduct. In applying for other employment, she was required to disclose the allegations against her and then rebut them. This is often referred to as “self-defamation”. It is a difficult position, obviously, for a candidate for a job. Since her termination, she could not afford her rent and was required to live out of her car for three months. The car belonged to the law firm. It was repossessed. She then lived on the street for a week or so. She also suffered from anxiety and depression.
It is certainly possible for a company to avoid a mess like this. The most critical step when making serious cause allegations is to conduct a fair and impartial investigation. A third-party neutral is often the best idea but this is not mandatory. Had this been done, and the employee interviewed, it may even have been possible that the cause allegations would never have been made. However, with a neutral fair investigation, the employer could still assert cause allegations without attracting an award of aggravated damages. The employer may still have lost the severance claim but would have avoided the additional $50,000.
It is actually a fairly modest award, given other sizeable damage awards. The law firm could have easily been hit with an award of up to $200,000 and even additional punitive damages.
Legal Advice Can be Critical
If you are facing allegations of this nature from a difficult former or current employer, it is time for real legal help. Get advice. Know your rights. Contact the offices of Guelph employment lawyer Peter McSherry. We can guide you through the issues and defend your position. Contact us online or by phone at 519-821-5465 to schedule a consultation.