Canadian Verdict Puts Employers on Notice
October 13, 2012 Leave a comment
Kudos to Beverly Peterson at Our Bully Pulpit for noting this story fromThe Windsor Star newspaper, which highlights the contrast between the United States and Canadian legal systems with respect to workplace bullying.
Targets in the United States have little legal recourse in the legal system. There is no law against workplace bullying. If they somehow make it to court – usually alleging some form of discrimination - it is probable that a federal judge will dismiss their case before it ever reaches a jury. It’s a different story in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, which has a law and where a target of bullying recently won a $1.4 million award after she was bullied out of her job at Walmart.
The Canadian jury of three men and three women, who decided that Boucher was constructively dismissed — in other words, forced out through abusive treatment — awarded her: from Walmart, $200,000 for intentional infliction of mental suffering, $1 million for punitive damages, and $10,000 for assault; and from her former supervisor, Jason Pinnock, $100,000 for intentional infliction of mental suffering, and $150,000 for punitive damages. .
Here’s an excerpt from an article by a University of Windsor professor who analyzes the significance of the verdict:
The $1.46-million award a former Walmart assistant manager won this week in Windsor for mistreatment by a boss could make workplaces more civil across Canada, says an expert on workplace bullying.
The Windsor ruling — the highest such award in Canadian history — for the first time has turned mass media attention to bullying at work, instead of simply, say, bullying at school.
“This is the big case and it’s going to change the way Canadians see workplace bullying, absolutely,” said Jacqueline Power, a University of Windsor assistant professor of business management who specializes in workplace bullying. “It’s similar to what sexual harassment was 20 years ago. People just had to put up with sexual harassment in the workplace. Then they started having large legal judgments and human resources departments began to take it seriously.”
Power said Ontario’s Bill 168, introduced in 2009 to protect workers from violence and harassment on the job, set the stage. But she said enforcement didn’t follow as promised, so it fell to court cases to lay out the law — starting with Meredith Boucher.
Last month Boucher launched a lawsuit against Walmart, where she had worked for 10 years, after she felt forced to leave the company in November 2009. A jury agreed the 42-year-old Chatham woman suffered daily abuse from Jason Pinnock, 32, then the manager of the east Windsor Walmart where she worked, who would berate her with profane and insulting language over six months, often in front of others.
She filed a suit alleging intentional infliction of mental suffering, sexual harassment and discrimination, and assault by an assistant manager who punched her in the arm two days in a row and was subsequently fired.
The jury of three men and three women gave her nothing for sexual harassment and discrimination, but handed her a whopping award for her other claims: $1.21 million against Walmart and $250,000 against Pinnock.
Power said the judgment sets another precedent beyond being the richest such award in Canada. She said it also marks the first time someone has successfully won for general bullying by a boss, without the victim having to fall into a special category of female, visible minority, gay or anything else.
“This is the first time that we have recognized that you can be a white male and still be treated badly at work,” she said, noting the irony that it took a woman to fight for such protection for all. “In the United States, they have decided explicitly that they will not enforce civility. But in Canada, we now look after white men, as well.
“So it’s an extremely brave thing for this person to bring it to court. And because she was so brave, she has changed the legal environment for all employees.”
Boucher’s lawsuit is actually only the first of four against Walmart Canada, all by female assistant managers seeking at least $500,000 in damages, all from the same store, all alleging the same thing in 2009 and 2010: abusive treatment by a manager.
“We are disappointed with the decision and surprised by the highly exceptional damages that have been awarded,” said Andrew Pelletier, vice-president of corporate affairs and sustainability for Walmart Canada. “We’re reviewing the decision in detail now and we will consider all options, including the possibility of an appeal.”
Pelletier said he is surprised not just by the size of the judgment but by the allegations.
A number of Walmart employees have launched suits against the company in the United States, however, where some workers have recently threatened to strike, despite the fact they are not unionized.
The woman at the centre of the case, meanwhile, says only one person treated her abusively but that it affected her deeply. Court heard that Boucher spoke to senior Walmart managers about the abuse several times. Not only was nothing done about it, she was told she would be held accountable for her accusations.
She became physically ill, lost weight, sought counselling, and was treated for stress. And then she took it to court, risking having to pay Walmart’s substantial court costs if she lost.