Social worker awarded eight months’ pay after being fired and accused of racism

Court attributes white woman’s comment on difficulty of working exclusively with coloured people to personality conflicts, not racism

A women’s shelter employee shouldn’t have been fired for saying she had concerns about working with black co-workers, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has ruled.

Karen Butler-Lynch, 49, was a counsellor at Dr. Roz’s Healing Place in Toronto for six years. She was one of two Caucasian employees at the shelter, whose staff and clients were mostly people of colour.

In 2006, Butler-Lynch was having disagreements with her supervisors over issues such as staff schedules and the treatment of shelter residents. She began feeling harassed and things came to a head in a mediation session in August 2006.

At the session, the executive director of the shelter allegedly told Butler-Lynch she could never know what is was like to be black. Butler-Lynch responded by saying she found it a “challenge” as a white woman to work completely with people of colour. Shelter management felt this showed a racist attitude and constituted discriminatory behaviour. Butler-Lynch was fired on Aug. 1, 2006.

The court found Butler-Lynch’s comments were not racist and merely an expression of her concerns for the situation she was in. It felt the comments of both her and her supervisors were the result of personality conflicts and “different views of policy and procedure,” which were “unremarkable” issues. The court pointed to Butler-Lynch’s six years of service with the shelter without any previous indications of racism.

“(Personality conflicts) have no place in the courtroom as somehow supporting just cause for dismissal,” the court said. “This type of overreaching to paint (Butler-Lynch) as a bad person with bad motives raises the concern that the employer is trying to find anything it can to bolster its allegations."

The court also found the shelter handled Butler-Lynch’s firing poorly. It originally sent her termination notice to an address she hadn’t lived at for years and then sent it by taxi to Butler-Lynch at work on the Friday before Labour Day weekend. Because the shelter was full, she then had to call in her own replacement to make sure someone would be there to help clients.

The court awarded Butler-Lynch six month’s salary in lieu of notice and an additional two months for the “thoughtless” way the shelter handled her firing, totalling $28,028.22. She was also awarded another $40,000 to cover her legal costs.

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