Employers can’t shoot first and ask questions later, court decides in termination case
Employers must listen to worker’s side of the story when alleging misconduct
Haste has consequences beyond waste. In this case, it netted an employee $75,000 in punitive damages.
Kerry Lalonde was a 56-year-old millwright with SENA Solid Waste Holdings Inc. He had worked for four years and expected to continue until the scheduled closing in December 2015.
It was not to be.
On June 13, 2012, a safety supervisor approached him, inquiring whether any of his colleagues had a permit for the work being performed. Lalonde did not know.
Later that day, he was summoned to a meeting with the maintenance manager, Victor Goegan. Goegan accused him of putting a colleague’s life in danger, of insubordination and of lying to a supervisor.
Lalonde was bewildered. He tried, in vain, to defend himself.
He was suspended and escorted from the premises by two coworkers.
Tense and upset, he heard nothing for weeks.
Lalonde wrote and phoned Goegan, struggling to tell his side of the story. No one responded. The stress of waiting drove Lalonde to his doctor, who provided him with notes indicating that he should be placed on stress leave.
Abruptly, on July 24, 2012, SENA sent Lalonde a letter advising him he had been terminated due to “failure to follow safety procedures and failure to follow your supervisor’s instructions.”
Lalonde tried once more to write to SENA’s management. SENA’s return email — copied to multiple senior employees — stated that SENA had conducted an investigation and verified all of the allegations.
On the first day of trial, SENA acknowledged that there was no cause for Lalonde’s termination.
Justice Gill of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench had little patience for SENA’s conduct. He awarded Lalonde six months of his salary and $75,000 in damages for SENA’s “shoot first and ask questions later” approach. The investigation, he declared, was “at best incompetent and unfair, and at worst a sham.”
The case is a cautionary tale for employers, in that:
SENA failed to consider Lalonde’s side of the story. When investigating alleged misconduct, an employer should be careful to ask for, and listen to, all sides of the story before making a decision.
A court will take into account proof of mental distress. If an employee indicates they are experiencing stress, anxiety or depression, the employer should consult legal counsel to plan a strategy going forward. This may include asking the employee for appropriate medical documentation and looking for ways to accommodate the employee.
An allegation of cause will delay, or entirely remove, the employee’s ability to access EI benefits. Justice Gill took into account Lalonde’s testimony that his EI benefits were delayed due to the allegations.
In short: if an employer wants to allege cause, they can. But they should be certain first that they have the basis to do so.
For employees, the stress of false allegations is enormous. But the key from Lalonde is that an employee should be resolute: an employer cannot make groundless accusations and expect to avoid repercussions.