Poisoned Work Environment? Not In This Restaurant…

What is a poisoned work environment? And when should the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal award damages to employees who might find themselves in one? That was the subject of a recent Ontario Divisional Court decision in Crépe It Up v. Hamilton.

Katie Hamilton worked as a cashier and cook in Crepe It Up, a small restaurant owned and operated by Chris Quy Lee on Church Street in Toronto. She worked there for about six months. She quit work and filed a complaint against Mr. Lee at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, alleging that she had been forced to endure a poisoned work environment.  Ms Hamilton’s claim went to a two day tribunal hearing in May 2012. At the hearing the adjudicator heard evidence of various comments made by Mr. Lee, some of which were only partially contested. The adjudicator made a number of findings of inappropriate comments on the part of Mr. Lee.

The findings included:

  • Lee had referred to a Black employee as being on “Jamaican time”
  • He had made a comment about anal sex to Ms Hamilton that he knew or ought to have known was unwelcome;
  • He had sent an allegedly inappropriate text to Ms Hamilton’s boyfriend when Ms Hamilton had not phoned in to Mr. Lee. This was the day after Halloween and Ms Hamilton had dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood. The adjudicator found that the text said “where is she, did you eat her?” The adjudicator found that this was an unwelcome comment containing sexual innuendo;
  • Staff members were asked to wear buttons that said “A kiss gets you 14% off.” The adjudicator held that Mr. Lee knew or should have known that this was would be an invitation to kiss staff.

Ultimately, the adjudicator held that Ms Hamilton had experienced a poisoned work environment, contrary to section 5(1) of the Ontario Human Rights Code. Ms Hamilton was awarded $3,000 as compensation for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect. Mr. Lee brought a judicial review application to the Ontario Divisional Court.

The Divisional Court overturned the decision and sent it back to the Tribunal to be heard by a different adjudicator. The Divisional Court decision is somewhat puzzling.

Essentially, the Divisional Court rejected two of the factual findings and conclusions of the adjudicator.

With respect to one set of findings, it questioned the process by which the adjudicator had concluded that the comments about anal sex had been made. As a result, it concluded that the adjudicator’s “finding that the allegation was proved is consequently unreasonable.”

The Divisional Court also took issue with the post-Halloween text. It held that Ms Hamilton’s boyfriend would not have shown the allegedly offensive text to her; that it was not “workplace-related” and Ms Hamilton did not complain about it at the time. The Court concluded that “it is difficult to see how this conduct, even if it is discriminatory, could have contributed to the poisoning of the work environment.”

Accordingly, the Divisional Court found that two of the findings by the adjudicator were “unreasonable” and the “finding of liability based on a poisoned work environment must be set aside.”

What has really occurred here? The Divisional Court, without actually hearing the witnesses at a hearing, has substituted its views for those of the adjudicator. Perhaps, the court did not really believe that these comments, even if all true, were serious enough to warrant a finding of a poisoned work atmosphere. That might have been the court’s prerogative, as a matter of law, but that is not what the court chose to say. Instead, the court held that the adjudicator’s findings were “unreasonable.” While the court may not have liked the adjudicator’s decision, it seems like quite a stretch to call the adjudicator’s conclusions “unreasonable.”

Perhaps the court’s view was coloured by the fact that Mr. Lee is an openly gay man. It may be that the judges of the court had concluded that the comments were not as threatening or offensive when made by a gay man to a female employee as they would have been from a straight boss who was seeking sexual favours from a complainant.

In any case, the divisional court applied the 2013 decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal in General Motors of Canada v. Johnson (2013) ONCA 52. Here is the key passage, picked up by the court:

“[E]xcept for particularly egregious, stand-alone incidents, a poisoned workplace is not created, as a matter of law, unless serious wrongful behaviour sufficient to create a hostile or intolerable work environment is persistent or repeated.”

Following the Johnson decision, the Crépe It Up v. Hamilton decision is a further example of a judicial pendulum that has swung back somewhat in favour of employers. Ontario courts have been making it more difficult for employees to establish a “poisoned work atmosphere” in cases of isolated comments or incidents that are viewed by the courts as less serious. This is a marked departure from some early decisions of the Ontario Court of Appeal in a sexual harassment context, such as Bannister v. General Motors [1998] O.J. No. 3402, in which the court took a much stricter view of certain types of unwelcome comments.

In the present case, the matter is not yet concluded. Crépe It Up may still find itself in hot water at the conclusion of another hearing as long as the reasons of a new adjudicator are not held to be half-baked. The adjudicator will need to sift through the new evidence more carefully and apply the divisional court’s definition of a “poisoned work environment” to all of the evidence that it hears.

Of course, Ms Hamilton may prefer to try to take this case to the Ontario Court of Appeal. She would need to “seek leave” but the Court of Appeal may well agree to hear the case. She could certainly argue that there seems to be some very questionable legal analysis by the Divisional Court in this decision.

This could all make for very interesting law. However, another possibility is that Ms Hamilton might simply choose to drop the matter altogether. Given the amount of money at stake ($3,000 plus legal fees awarded to Mr. Lee of approximately $2,000), this might be the most financially sound decision.

We’ll watch for any developments.

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