Damage control leads to big-time damages

Bell Mobility and manager rung up for more than $500,000 after assault and its aftermath causes employee’s stress disorder

A traumatic push

A manager with a confrontational managerial style gets impatient with an employee’s results and believes she should do everything she can before coming to him for help. The employee, who is quiet and sensitive, feels frustrated by things that are beyond her control.

When these two individuals at a Bell Mobility office crossed paths, the situation got heated. However, the manager’s confrontational manner went too far when his yelling culminated in a physical push that had a lasting psychological effect on the employee. When Bell Mobility tried to gloss things over and allowed the manager to pursue a performance improvement plan against the employee, its attempts at damage control got the company and the manager in deep for more than $500,000 in damages.

An Ontario company has been ordered to pay an employee more than $500,000, including $15,000 to her same-sex partner, after a supervisor physically assaulted her in the office.

Maria Piresferreira, 64, was an account manager selling cellphones and pagers to federal government departments, agencies and Crown corporations for Bell Mobility in Ottawa. She was one of six account managers in the Ottawa office that reported to sales manager Richard Ayotte.

Ayotte was in charge of assigning sales territories and accounts to the account managers and assisted them in their duties when needed. He believed in being firm and pushing his account managers. He would often be demonstrative and yell if he felt someone needed to have a fire lit under them. Sometimes he would berate anyone who was not meeting sales targets, including yelling and swearing. Piresferreira, who was a quiet, sensitive person, sometimes became upset when this happened.

Piresferreira received very good performance reviews nearly every year from when she joined Bell Mobility in 1996 until 2003. Her work ethic, ability to learn fast, rapport with clients and ability to work in a team were all strengths that were noted in her reviews. However, Ayotte felt she needed to improve her presentation skills to better present new products to customers.

Trouble with government accounts

Things changed for Piresferreira in 2004 when government departments bought significantly fewer products due to the sponsorship scandal. Piresferreira, whose entire client list was made up of government bodies, was hit the hardest. This was compounded by a new billing platform Bell Mobility introduced, which caused confusion among clients and a delay in invoices. Piresferreira took another hit when one of her biggest accounts was lost due to an error by executives, including Ayotte, that affected more than 2,000 cellphone activations.

Though most of the factors causing Piresferreira’s problems in 2004 were beyond her control, Ayotte expected her and all account managers to “take ownership” of their problems and investigate all avenues before coming to him for help. When Piresferreira, who felt she had exhausted all other possibilities, repeatedly asked Ayotte for help, he grew impatient and would yell and swear at her. She didn’t make a formal complaint about this or Ayotte’s behaviour in the office because she felt she was in a vulnerable position in the highly competitive office. Eventually, Piresferreira began avoiding Ayotte by working as much as possible outside of the office.

Piresferreira’s year-end performance review for 2004 reflected her troubles in meeting sales targets and Ayotte gave her an unfavourable review. Piresferreira was informed she would have to work harder and take ownership of her challenges.

In May 2005, Piresferreira found out the Blackberrys used by Industry Canada employees weren’t working in Washington, D.C. Industry Canada was one of her major clients, so she informed Ayotte and the technical staff of the problem. Ayotte arranged for meetings with the clients to fix the problems, but Piresferreira found out the government clients couldn’t be available on the date chosen.

Exasperation led to physical assault

On May 12, 2005, Piresferreira told Ayotte she wasn’t able to arrange for the clients to fix the problem. Ayotte became angry and began yelling and swearing at her, saying she wasn’t doing her job. Piresferreira insisted she had done everything she could and followed him down a hallway, trying to show him e-mails on her Blackberry proving her efforts. Ayotte continued yelling at her and told her to get away from him as he wasn’t interested. Finally, Ayotte pushed Piresferreira’s left shoulder, which moved her back and she had to catch her balance against a filing cabinet as Ayotte walked away.

Piresferreira, feeling shaken and violated, went to Ayotte’s office and told him he shouldn’t have pushed her. Ayotte told her he was preparing a performance improvement plan (PIP) for her. She returned to her desk crying and went home soon after.

Ayotte didn’t notify HR of the incident with Piresferreira, but instead told them he was preparing a PIP for her, which demanded an action plan to increase her sales levels and daily reporting of her progress.

Piresferreira tried to arrange to meet Ayotte for him to apologize, but he ignored her efforts. Instead, when she returned to work he gave her the PIP and asked her to sign it. Piresferreira refused and filed a formal complaint against him.

Bell Mobility spoke to Ayotte about the incident but didn’t contact Piresferreira for her version of events. It scheduled a meeting between the two but told Piresferreira she was to review her PIP. Piresferreira declined and took sick leave, which her doctor indicated was for anxiety stemming from workplace harassment.

Nobody from Bell Mobility contacted Piresferreira to find out how she was doing and her emotional state deteriorated and she remained off work. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and her anxiety seriously affected her social and home life.

In September 2006, Bell Mobility informed Piresferreira that Ayotte was retiring and she could return to work. However, she refused because she said the assault and Bell Mobility’s response had poisoned the work environment for her. Bell Mobility considered this a resignation and issued a record of employment that indicated that as the reason for her cessation of employment.

Employer’s actions contributed to stress disorder

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice found Piresferreira’s post-traumatic stress symptoms were a direct result of Ayotte’s assault as well as the “escalating verbal abuse” that had been happening prior to the incident. Also, though Ayotte’s intention may not have been to hurt Piresferreira, he showed “reckless disregard for her emotional well-being” and his immediate implementation of the PIP was “calculated to produce harm” to her. The implementation of the PIP was also inappropriate and meant to intimidate her, the court said, and that, along with Bell Mobility’s overall response to the situation, contributed to Piresferreira’s depression and anxiety.

The court found Bell Mobility was vicariously responsible for the assault on Piresferreira because it had put Ayotte in charge of the Ottawa office and allowed him to treat the account managers in an aggressive way. Both Ayotte and the company also breached a duty of care to provide a safe and harassment-free working environment, the court said.

When Bell Mobility approached the situation as “damage control” by closing the case and moving ahead with the PIP, it showed a disregard for the effect this would have on Piresferreira, the court said.

The court found Piresferreira was unable to work due to the emotional problems she developed from the situation and it was uncertain if she ever would be able to return to work. It awarded her $450,832 for loss of income from her sick leave and for another five years she planned to work, since she was 60 years old at the time of the assault. It also awarded her $45,000 in general damages for her disabling symptoms that resulted from the assault itself and $5,122.52 to cover her therapy and medications.

The court also found Bell Mobility didn’t treat Piresferreira with “civility, decency, respect and dignity,” which was an implied term of the employment contract. Because of this, the company created a poisoned work environment to which she couldn’t return and constructively dismissed her. The court found Piresferreira was entitled to 12 months’ pay in lieu of notice, but awarding it would amount to “double recovery” with the other damages.

In addition to the $500,955 Bell Mobility and Ayotte were ordered to pay Piresferreira, the court also ordered them to pay Piresferreira’s partner $15,000 for “loss of guidance, care and companionship” she experienced as a result of Piresferreira’s depression and anxiety.

“Clearly it was foreseeable that the combination of yelling and swearing at Piresferreira, assaulting her, threatening her with a PIP and then presenting her with the PIP without any acknowledgement of or apology for the assault would cause Piresferreira serious psychological injury,” the court said.

For more information see:

Piresferreira v. Ayotte, 2008 CarswellOnt 7733 (Ont. S.C.J.).

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