Letter killed employment relationship

Suspended B.C. firefighter wanted chief to be dismissed or disciplined

A part-time firefighter in small-town British Columbia lost his wrongful dismissal suit after he was fired for swearing at the fire chief and writing a letter that asked for the chief to be dismissed or disciplined.

Floyd Monaghan was a firefighter in Creston, B.C., who had been on the job for six years. When a new chief was hired, the two didn’t exactly hit if off, according to Justice Donald Carlgren of the British Columbia Provincial Court

The chief noted personnel issues involving Monaghan almost from the outset of the chief’s employment, the court said. For his part, Monaghan thought the new chief didn’t understand the difference between a big-city fire department and a small-town fire service that relied heavily on volunteers with other commitments.

Monaghan didn’t seem to be alone in this assessment of the new chief. The court said it sounded as if a large part of the fire department shared his beliefs and concerns.

“I say that because there is evidence before me of a non-confidence vote, and of several high ranking officers of a small department leaving in a short time,” said Justice Carlgren.

But while the court said it was tempting in this case to go further than necessary to decide the issue, that would not be in keeping with the principle of judicial restraint. After all, this case was simply about whether Monaghan had been wrongfully dismissed.

Message not delivered

In early April 2001 things came to a head between Monaghan and the chief. Monaghan was sent out to a call and he asked the chief to relay a message to Monaghan’s wife to let her know where he was so she wouldn’t worry and so she could look after mailing a package for him.

The chief forgot to pass the message on to Monaghan’s wife, despite stating that he would.

“At the end of a tiring call-out, (Monaghan) swore at the chief, in front of other members of the department,” said Justice Carlgren.

The chief took this complaint, and a number of previous ones, to the town administrator. The two agreed to suspend Monaghan for one month.

Letter ‘over the top’

During that month, Monaghan demanded an explanation and received the list of complaints compiled by the chief. He responded, point by point, to the complaints. In his view there was a reasonable explanation for everything.

The court wasn’t critical of the fact Monaghan responded to the complaints, but it said the tone he took was inappropriate. (No copy of the letter was included in the judgment, so it’s not clear exactly what Monaghan said.)

“There is no question that the letter constitutes an attack on the chief’s ability to command,” said Justice Carlgren. “The tone is mocking or sarcastic.”

The court said Monaghan’s statements in the letter essentially destroyed the employer-employee relationship.

“His statements are so far over the top that they would not permit a rebuilding of the relationship,” said Justice Carlgren. “What I believe is that (Monaghan) basically entered the political arena: he sought the dismissal or disciplining of the chief. I find that this letter, alone, is sufficient to constitute just cause for dismissal. That is particularly so given the ‘smallness’ of the job — apparently about 20 hours or less per month.”

Had the court found Monaghan had been wrongfully dismissed, it would have awarded about six months pay in lieu of notice, said Justice Carlgren.

For more information see:

Monaghan v. Creston (Town), 2005 CarswellBC 908, 2005 BCPC 127 (B.C. Prov. Ct.)

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