Office Disagreement Leads to Accidental Termination

The Ontario Court of Appeal recently upheld an Ontario Superior Court of Justice’s decision that focused on the importance of maintaining composure with employees, particularly during moments of disagreement or conflict.

Background

The plaintiff was employed as a registered practical nurse in the defendant’s medical office and had been working there for 22 years. The employer in this case was a plastic surgeon. In addition to acting as the defendant’s key nurse, she served in the role of office manager for the small, but busy plastic surgery practice. For a time, the office also employed a secretary.

The secretary stopped working at the office in 2011. The plaintiff began to take on many of the secretarial responsibilities and was joined by the defendant’s wife who worked one, and later two, days per week. The court found that the plaintiff “was clearly overworked after the secretary left,” often staying late and working through lunch.

The Disagreement

The disagreement that led to the plaintiff’s termination arose after the defendant suggested the office move to electronic medical recording (EMR), a paperless, fully computerized office. This transition would have led to a significant increase in the plaintiff’s workload and it became a point of tension in the office.

The events in question at trial took place during a meeting on June 20, 2012. The exact words exchanged during the meeting were disputed at trial, but the Trial Court ultimately found that the defendant had become angry at the plaintiff during the meeting and told her, “Go! Get out! I am so sick of coming into this office every day and looking at your ugly face.”

The plaintiff testified that she knew “I was done, that he wanted no more part of me. He wanted me out of that office because the way he looked right in my eyes and the way he said it with so much disgust…” In her mind, she had been fired.

The defendant denied that he had fired the plaintiff, and denied uttering the alleged words, instead insisting that he was referring to the “ugliness in the office.” He also stated that he said “Let’s get out of here and go home.”

The Trial accepted the plaintiff’s version of event.

Termination

The Trial Court found that while the defendant did not intend to terminate the plaintiff’s employment, by telling her “Go! Get out! I am so sick of coming into this office every day and looking at your ugly face” the employment relationship was effectively destroyed and it was reasonable for the plaintiff to think she had been fired.

The Trial Court found that “an employer owes a duty to its employees to treat them fairly, with civility, decency, respect and dignity. An employer who subjects employees to treatment that renders competent performance of their work impossible, or continued employment intolerable, exposes itself to an action for constructive dismissal.”

The plaintiff was awarded $120,000 in damages in lieu of notice at 24 months. The Court of Appeal upheld the trial decision with the exception of a point concerning the calculation of damages.

If you think you have been wrongfully dismissed, Guelph wrongful dismissal lawyer Peter A. McSherry can ensure that your case is handled properly and efficiently, and that you receive a fair settlement. Contact me by phone at 519-821-5465 or by e-mail to schedule a consultation.