Written on behalf of Peter McSherry
Mistreatment in the workplace is not taken lightly and often forms the basis of wrongful dismissal and harassment or discrimination claims. In some situations, individuals who have been subjected to workplace harassment or bullying may receive damages. However, such behaviour can impact an employer beyond a strictly financial sense.
A recent decision from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice considered how his profession’s regulatory body disciplined an employer after being found guilty of workplace misconduct at the clinic he owned and operated.
Veterinary doctor appeals decision from regulatory body
In Ontario College of Veterinarians of Ontario v. Dr. Ackerman, the appellant, Dr. Ackerman (the “doctor”), cross-appealed a decision from the Discipline Committee (the “Committee”) of the College of Veterinarians of Ontario (the “CVO”), which resulted in significant consequences, including the suspension of his license to practice veterinary medicine for eight months. The CVO appealed the Committee’s penalty decision and asked the Court to order that the doctor complete specific provisions of the decision, including therapy, before the reinstatement of his license.
In July 2017, the CVO received a complaint from one of the doctor’s staff members, “SH”. SH alleged that the doctor regularly abused his staff and another veterinarian who worked at his clinic. The CVO investigated the complaint and heard from witnesses who provided testimony to the Committee about the doctor’s behaviour between 2015-2019.
Testimony alleges physical and verbal abuse
At the hearing, the Committee heard from nine witnesses who alleged that the doctor yelled and screamed at employees, going so far as to hit two of them. SH shared recorded audio of the doctor which captured interactions between him and various staff members who testified. The Court noted that the doctor raised his voice and used a derogatory tone in the audio recordings.
Two employees told the Committee that the doctor would slap their hands away and push them if he felt they were in his way or not performing their duties appropriately. One employee said that the doctor would often call him an “idiot”, while others said he would embarrass and physically abuse them by screaming profanities and telling one employee that he believed she had a mental health condition. Some accusations bordered on sexual harassment, with one employee claiming that the doctor insisted that she smile when he wanted to take a photo of her.
The other veterinarian who worked at the clinic, who was originally from Afghanistan, told the Committee that the doctor would comment on their work by asking if they would rather drive a taxi or practice veterinary medicine, suggesting that they would be more suited to the former.
Committee not satisfied with doctor’s credibility
Beyond physical and verbal abuse, the employees told the Committee that the doctor asked staff to change various surgical and anesthesia records, including altering the volumes of drugs given to animals.
The Committee found supporting evidence for several of the allegations, and was not satisfied by the doctor’s insistence that he would raise his voice simply in order to be heard from time to time. The Committee found his evidence to be “somewhat jumbled and discontinuous which made assessment of his credibility and reliability difficult.”
The Committee issued its decision requiring the doctor to attend a public reprimandment and have his license revoked for eight months, in addition to attending therapy at his own expense, undergoing an assessment to determine his own mental health conditions, and successfully completing a professional ethics program.
Court asks if the committee made a palpable and overriding error
The doctor cross-appealed the Committee’s decision and asked the Court to overturn their findings about his behaviour and the resulting consequences. He claimed that the Committee failed to properly consider whether he would become physical in pushing the hands or bodies of employees out of the way for safety reasons or that he had good reason to alter records to make them more accurate.
The Court noted that the Committee spent 31 pages of its decision addressing the testimony from the witnesses, and a further 20 paragraphs devoted to assessing the doctor’s side of the story. Therefore, the Court found no reason to interfere with the Committee’s findings.
Doctor’s arguments show a disagreement with the Committee’s conclusions, not error
The Court also considered the CVO’s appeal which asked the Court to add more stringent requirements to the Committee’s order that the doctor pursue therapy. The CVO claimed that the public would be better protected if the doctor was required to complete specific parts of the order, including therapy, before returning to his practice.
The Court found that the Committee imposed penalties on the upper end of the available penalties in these circumstances. While it might have been preferable, there was no basis for the Court to make orders beyond what were already made.
Justice Akhtar ultimately found that the doctor’s arguments in the appeal amounted to merely a disagreement with the Committee’s findings and did not establish that a palpable and overriding error had been made.
Peter A. McSherry Provides Clients with Trusted Advice on Workplace Harassment
Being the subject of workplace harassment or discrimination can be an incredibly isolating experience, however, it is important to remember that you are not alone in the situation. If you have experienced workplace harassment, options are available to help prevent this from happening again, to both yourself and colleagues. Workplace anti-discrimination and harassment policies may not be sufficient if the harassment comes from the business owner. The Peter A. McSherry employment lawyers team has extensive experience guiding employees through challenging situations to protect their interests and obtain just compensation. If you have questions about workplace discrimination and harassment, please contact our office online or by phone at 519-821-5465 to speak with a team member.