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“Your ugly face”: employer’s condescending, aggressive, hostile and profane behaviour in one meeting resulted in constructive dismissal. Nurse awarded 24 months in damages

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The Ontario Court of Appeal has upheld a 24-month damage award to a long-service nurse in a doctor’s office who believed that she had been fired during a hostile meeting with her employer.

The doctor for whom she worked wanted her to look into electronic medical records (EMR).  She was overwhelmed with a heavy workload and did not get to it.  The doctor angrily confronted her in a meeting, at which the doctor’s wife was also present.  The court found that the doctor, in his anger, said, “Go! Get out! I am so sick of coming into this office every day and looking at your ugly face.”  He also pointed at her, shouted at her, accused her of being resistant to change, and used profanity during that meeting.  The employee, distraught, left the meeting and never returned to work. The employer treated her as having quit. The employee sued for wrongful dismissal.

The trial judge decided that although the doctor did not intend to dismiss the nurse, he did in fact fire her when he told her to “Go! Get out!”

Even if the doctor had not fired the employee, he had constructively dismissed her, the trial judge stated.  Although the meeting was only one incident, it was sufficient to constitute a constructive dismissal.  The trial judge wrote:

“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.  Where the employer’s treatment of the employee is of sufficient severity and effect, it will be characterized as an unjustified repudiation of the employment contract.”

The trial judge found that the doctor’s behaviour was condescending, aggressive, hostile and profane.  His conduct diminished the nurse’s stature and dignity in the office.  When the doctor saw the emotional impact that his comments had on her at the meeting, he did nothing.  He had made her continued employment intolerable, and effectively destroyed the employment relationship.

The trial judge awarded this 22-year employee 24 months’ salary in damages for wrongful dismissal.  The appeal court upheld this award.

The trial judge’s decision can be read here, and the appeal court’s decision here.