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“Sham” investigation results in $75,000 aggravated damages award against employer

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An employer that terminated an employee alleging just cause was ordered to pay damages for wrongful dismissal, including an award of aggravated damages of $75,000.

The plaintiff employee worked at the defendant’s waste treatment plant for almost 4 years. The circumstances leading to his dismissal began with an innocuous, routine safety meeting. The plaintiff had advised his supervisor that he was going to be doing preventative maintenance that day. He then proceeded to obtain a work permit, which was standard practice. Later that day, the plaintiff spoke to the safety supervisor who asked about a contract worker and whether he had a permit. The plaintiff replied that he did not know. Later that afternoon, the plaintiff was called into a meeting with the manager where he was “chewed out” and accused of putting a life in danger. This allegation related to the contract worker who was apparently working without a permit. The plaintiff was surprised and tried to respond, to clarify that it was his supervisor’s responsibility, not his, to assign work to the contract worker. The plaintiff was suspended and summarily escorted off the property.

Following his suspension, the plaintiff continued, unsuccessfully, trying to communicate his side of the story to the employer. He ultimately went on stress leave. Over 1 month after his initial suspension, the plaintiff received a letter from the employer advising that he had been terminated for cause. When the trial started approximately 5 years later, the employer withdrew the just cause argument.

The plaintiff was successful in his wrongful dismissal claim against the employer and was awarded 6 months’ pay in lieu of notice. The court considered the plaintiff’s claim for aggravated damages resulting from how he was treated before and during the termination. Among the reasons considered in support of the claim for aggravated damages was the employer’s investigation. The court held that the employer’s investigation clearly failed to give any serious consideration to the plaintiff’s side of the story, and that the plaintiff had not been given the proper opportunity to present his version of events. The evidence suggested that the employer had made up its mind to dismiss the plaintiff within days of his suspension, supporting the conclusion that the investigation was either incompetent and unfair or even a sham. The employer had also ignored or failed to give proper weight to information received from another employee who was present at the initial safety meeting and supported the plaintiff’s account of what happened.

Ultimately, the court was satisfied that the employer’s actions amounted to a breach of the obligation of good faith and fair dealing and supported an award of aggravated damages. The employer’s false reasons for dismissal and inadequate and unfair investigation resulted in the plaintiff failing to receive procedural fairness. The court determined that the appropriate amount for aggravated damages was $75,000.

Lalonde v Sena Solid Waste Holdings Inc., 2017 ABQB 374 (CanLII).