A military contractor had just cause to dismiss a worker on a military base in Bosnia for aggressive and intimidating behaviour towards co-workers, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench has ruled.
The 60-year-old worker was in the military until 1983 when he was discharged due to a dependence on alcohol that had caused him to get into too many fights. He continued to drink for some time until 1987, when he decided to turn his life around and quit drinking.
The worker was hired on Dec. 11, 2000, by Atco, a military contractor that provided communications, supplies, and transport at Canadian military bases. Two weeks later, he started his employment as a transport dispatcher at Base Black Bear, a Canadian military base in Bosnia.
The base was secure and access to it was tightly controlled. As a result, the worker and other personnel were required to wear identification cards while inside the base. His job involved a 12-week rotation followed by four weeks of vacation, where he was responsible for the dispatch of 50 vehicles in base, who drove them, and vehicle maintenance. When the worker was hired, he also agreed to Atco’s code of ethics as well as the National Defence Act’s code of service discipline.
Turner received positive performance reviews in June and August 2001.
In February 2002, the worker organized a gathering of past members of the airborne regiment — an occasion he set up every second month. He had written down the amount of pizza to order from the base kitchen, but unbeknownst to him the order wasn’t actually placed. When the pizza didn’t arrive for the gathering, he got the impression an Atco manager had cancelled the food. The worker exchanged heated words with the manager and swore at him. The manager asked if the worker was threatening him and the worker replied, “I don’t threaten. I follow through.”
Atco investigated the altercation, including interviewing the worker and the manager. It was determined that there was a miscommunication over the pizza order but the worker’s conduct towards the manager was “inappropriate, inexcusable and belligerent.” The worker was given a written warning stating his behaviour was unacceptable and a repeat of it or similar behaviour would result in discipline up to and including dismissal.
The worker refused to accept the warning letter but it was placed in his employment file. Atco referred him to an employee assistance program for anger management but he didn’t follow through.
Worker suspected co-worker of theft
About three months after the pizza incident with the Atco manager, the worker was on duty at the dispatch office when a soldier left a television with the instructions to have it delivered to another army base. The worker left the television in a box with no instructions and went off shift for four days. While he was gone, another dispatcher came on duty, saw the television, and assumed it was for the driver’s room since the drivers and dispatch had been requesting a new television. She had a driver install the set in the driver’s lounge.
When the worker returned to duty, he realized the mistake and had the television delivered as requested. He then confronted the other dispatcher as to why she dealt with the television the way she did. The other dispatcher didn’t see a problem, since it was the worker’s mistake in not labelling the box. However, the worker accused her of theft and commented to another dispatcher that “People around here are acting like a bunch of Somalians, a bunch of thieves.”
A short time later, in July 2002, the worker was on duty when a soldier asked him about a bag that was left in a vehicle. Someone else overheard and said the bag had been handed into dispatch earlier, which made the worker suspicious that the other dispatcher had taken it.
The bag was later returned to dispatch and when the worker gave it to the soldier, the solider gave him a look that the worker took to think soldiers thought the dispatchers were thieves. The worker complained to his supervisor that the other dispatcher had stolen the bag and then returned it.
The supervisor didn’t do anything about the worker’s complaint, so the worker took it upon himself to discuss the matter with the other dispatcher. According to the other dispatcher, the worker came into the office, walked up behind her, then walked away and told her he had experience as a detective and she was a thief. He also said such behaviour made all Atco employees look bad to the military. She claimed the worker acted aggressively and was trying to intimidate her, and when she suggested they go to the military police if there was an investigation the worker suggested he could set her up to look like a thief.
The other dispatcher made a formal complaint of harassment to Atco. She said she was scared of the worker because of his behaviour towards her and had seen him act angrily and aggressively with others at the base. She checked with the military police three times to see if there was an investigation and to say she was afraid of the worker when he returned after his one-month leave.
Foiled attempts at resolution
When the worker returned, Atco held a meeting to discuss the harassment complaint. The other dispatcher added that the worker had mentioned he had “friends that break legs and take care of problems for him.” The worker denied calling her a thief or threatening her, but acted aggressively and angrily in the meeting.
The other dispatcher said she could work with the worker if she could feel safe and free from intimidation, but the worker said that didn’t make sense if she was afraid of him. He finally said “Either she goes, or I go,” thinking one of them could be transferred to another job at that base or another base Atco managed.
Atco decided that the worker was an embarrassment and a liability for the company and there were no vacancies at Camp Black Bear, so it terminated his employment on Oct. 16, 2002. The termination letter stated that it couldn’t rely on the worker to interact with fellow employees in an acceptable manner.
The worker became aware of rumours about his dismissal circulating in the military. Some were that he was a sexual predator, others accused him of selling arms to the Irish Republican Army. However, most soldiers he talked to about it thought the rumours were ridiculous.
The worker sued Atco for wrongful dismissal and defamation. He argued he was a strong performer and he made appropriate inquiries about the television and bag to avoid embarrassment for Atco, and Atco should have found another position for either himself or the other dispatcher.
The case was entangled in the legal system for 12 years before reaching the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. The court noted that Atco had to keep in mind that the other dispatcher had the right to be free from the worker’s intimidating behaviour and the worker gave Atco an ultimatum: “Either she goes, or I go.” This meant there could be no resolution where both employees would continue in their current employment.
The court found Atco followed its policy in dealing with the complaint and tried to resolve the matter. However, the worker was “assertive, bordering on aggressive and certainly not conciliatory.”
Atco was aware that the worker had previously been offered assistance with his anger and aggressiveness and he had a previous warning about such behaviour. When he acted dismissive of the mediation process, there wasn’t much Atco could do, said the court.
The court also noted that Atco didn’t have a duty to find a position for the worker elsewhere because his employment contract was for “a certain position in a certain place which the employer could not unilaterally change.” Given the workplace was a small military base, the worker breached his obligations when he intimidated a co-worker with the same job and refused to work with her, said the court.
The court found Atco had just cause to terminate the worker’s employment. It also found Atco was not responsible for the rumours going through military circles and there wasn’t evidence of real harm to his reputation or that the worker suffered acute mental stress because of them.
The worker’s claim for wrongful dismissal and defamation was dismissed.
For more information see:
Turner v. Atco Frontec Corp.
, 2016 CarswellAlta 854 (Alta. Q.B.).