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.

Damages Awarded for Inadequate Response to Harassing Email

Damages Awarded for     Inadequate Response to Harassing Email

To avoid being sexually assaulted, “don’t dress like sluts.” This is one of the pieces of offensive and ill conceived advice provided by a Toronto Police Services officer to a group of York University Students at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto on January 24, 2011. The comment outraged students and generated significant negative publicity. According to numerous reports, the officer subsequently sent a letter of apology to the faculty and students and faced some internal discipline. The controversy sparked a “slut walk” in Toronto in early April, at which close to 1,000 marchers walked to Toronto police headquarters to protest the blame the victim mentality towards sexual assaults.

Having a poorly trained or insensitive officer on the front lines in an assault or harassment situation does not meet a reasonable police standard. But in an employment context, it can also give rise to legal liability and damage awards.

In a recent case involving Nipissing University, a professor was awarded $9,950 by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal when the University was found to have been less than fully diligent in pursuing a harassment complaint.

The professor, who was seven months pregnant at the time, received an anonymous, sexually offensive and threatening email, purporting to be from one of her students. The email was traceable to one of the University’s library computers though the sender was never found. The University had freely available computers in its library with no log in ID required and no surveillance in many of the computer areas.

The University was found to have taken the complaint seriously and to have made some initial efforts to investigate. However, when the professor went to meet with campus security to discuss the matter, she was told “if it makes you feel any better, this isn’t the worst case I’ve seen.” Though perhaps intended by the officer as an effort to console her, the words had the effect of belittling her and leaving her feeling that campus security was not about to take this matter seriously. Due to the content of the email, she was concerned for her safety for the safety of her unborn child.

Although the Tribunal found that the University fulfilled many of its obligations including its general duty to provide a safe work environment and to take this kind of complaint seriously, the University was held to have “failed to remain diligent in pursuit of the matter.” Its policies and procedures for dealing with matters of sexual harassment were found to have been “inadequate to deal with the offensive and threatening email.”

While this is not one of the largest monetary awards that the Tribunal has issued, it is recognition by the Tribunal that employers have a wide ranging obligation to protect their employees from sexual harassment and assault. This includes the requirement to have proper procedures and processes in place for investigating and addressing complaints. Employers must use properly trained officers who are knowledgeable and sensitive and know how to respond to harassment, threats or to an assault. Most significantly, failure to meet these standards may be a breach of the Ontario Human Rights Code and can give rise to awards for damages.

After the incident at York University and the Nipissing University decision, employers should redouble their efforts to ensure that they have proper policies and procedures in place to prevent sexual harassment and assault and to address complaints appropriately. Most importantly, they must ensure that they have properly trained staff to implement the procedures and policies.

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