Airport worker receives big payout after suffering false accusation, firing (Legal view)

Worker awarded $500,000 after being turfed based on video surveillance
By Jeffrey R. Smith
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/31/2010

An Ontario airport administration company was ordered to pay an employee $100,000 in damages and years of salary after firing her for sick leave fraud without properly investigating the circumstances.

The employee, 53, was a fleet co-ordinator at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), looking after 200 of its vehicles. Her job involved delivery and pickup of vehicles for maintenance and extensive walking and driving. She worked for the GTAA for 23 years without any disciplinary problems or concerns about her job performance.

On Oct. 31, 2003, she injured her knee while getting out of a utility vehicle. She took a couple of days off work and planned to go to physiotherapy for six months. She didn’t need any significant modifications at work but made some small ones on her own, such as moving around when her knee became sore. However, the therapy didn’t help and she had arthroscopic surgery on Feb. 19, 2004. Following the surgery, her doctor gave her a medical note instructing her to take four weeks off for recovery.

Unbeknownst to the GTAA, the employee lived with another GTAA worker who had been terminated, reinstated by an arbitrator and was on sick leave. The GTAA, which had a costly absentee problem, suspected the sick leave was unwarranted and put this worker under surveillance. Through this surveillance, it observed the employee recovering from her operation out and about on several occasions so the GTAA began watching her as well.

The employee was seen going to her physiotherapy clinic, driving to a Wal-Mart, reaching up to high shelves while standing on her toes, carrying parcels while shopping and driving someone to the airport. Some days she remained at home but when she was out, she didn’t seem to be experiencing any discomfort.

The GTAA became suspicious her injury wasn’t as bad as she had indicated, particularly since one of its managers had similar surgery and was only off work for a few days. It contacted the employee and asked for medical information as to why she needed four weeks off and whether she could return earlier with modified work.

The employee was afraid her job was in danger, since her partner had originally been the subject of surveillance and had been fired, so she obtained a note from her physiotherapist that said she could use one more week off. But the GTAA rejected it.

She followed up with a note from her surgeon that said she could return with restrictions, such as no lifting, driving or walking for more than 10 minutes. As a result, she returned to work with regular duties on March 17, 2004, during which further surveillance showed her limping at the end of the day because she hadn’t taken painkillers out of concern it would affect her work.

The GTAA met with the employee on March 19 to ask her about her limitations and what it saw on the surveillance videos of her time off work. The employee explained she initially had a severe limp and needed a cane after the operation, but as time went by her knee improved. She also said she was often on painkillers that helped with discomfort and allowed her to drive.

The GTAA felt she was being dishonest about the severity of her injury and the surveillance videos proved she was improved enough to work. She had been observed doing things beyond the restrictions of the doctor’s note and the GTAA wanted her to “come clean.”

The employee was told if she apologized she would be given another chance, but she refused to accept she did anything wrong. She said some days were good while other days her knee was sore. The GTAA suspended her while it decided what discipline to impose.

Over the next few days, the GTAA investigators concluded the employee was being dishonest and when she was seen limping after returning to work, it was because she was aware of being watched and played up her injury. On March 24, 2004, the employee was terminated for violating its code of conduct, which listed dishonesty, falsifying attendance and leave reporting and making false statements as grounds for termination on a first offence.

The employee grieved her termination, claiming she was wrongfully dismissed and the GTAA’s “stalking” and subsequent dismissal triggered psychological trauma and affected her health because it brought up memories of past abusive relationships. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and “betrayal trauma.”

The GTAA was entitled to use the surveillance videos in its investigation of the employee’s sick leave, since they showed information relevant to her abilities, found the arbitrator. However, the GTAA made a serious mistake when it used the videos as the basis to form its opinion on her status over medical experts.

Even though the video surveillance showed the employee was going to physiotherapy and staying at home for long periods of time and the GTAA had notes from her surgeon and physiotherapist stating she needed more time off, it chose to believe she was in better condition, said the arbitrator. The employer also ignored the fact she seemed to be worse off after a day working her regular duties without painkillers and there was a difference between the conditions at work and at home.

“It is apparent that before terminating the (employee), the managers at the GTAA did not rely on any medical evidence, but simply relied on their own observations of the video surveillance and their meeting with (her). They were not doctors and they ought not to have arrogated themselves the medical knowledge which was necessary to assess the medical conditions of the (employee) based on the examination of the tapes,” said the arbitrator.

The employee was honest about her circumstances and there were no grounds for dismissal, found the arbitrator.

The GTAA also acted in bad faith and such treatment of a 23-year employee with no previous problems was unacceptable, he found. It was likely her association with the other troubled worker coloured the GTAA’s dealings with her and her situation was not assessed on its own merits, said the arbitrator.

The GTAA was ordered to pay the employee $50,000 for the mental distress it caused because of its treatment of her, another $50,000 in punitive damages and compensation for the difference in her current salary and her GTAA salary and benefits in the six years since her termination, which was estimated to be more than $300,000. In addition, it was likely she would have worked for the GTAA until her retirement at age 55, said the arbitrator, so the GTAA was ordered to pay her compensation for an additional two years of future economic loss, bringing the estimated total award to more than $500,000.

For more information see:

•Greater Toronto Airports Authority v. Public Service Alliance Canada, Local 0004 (Feb. 12, 2010), O.B. Shime — Arb. (Ont. Arb. Bd.).

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit employmentlawtoday.com.

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