B.C. termination ends in scuffle

Worker awarded extra damages after he was dragged out to police car on main street of a small town following a scuffle with board members

A British Columbia man who was fired without cause, got into an altercation with board members when they entered his office and was later dragged out by police to a squad car on the main street of a small town, was awarded extra damages by the British Columbia Supreme Court for the way his dismissal was handled.

Joseph Zadorozniak was hired as general manager of Community Futures Development Corp. of Nicola Valley in Merritt, B.C. on Nov. 6, 2000. He was paid a salary of $57,000. Community Futures Development Corporations (CFDC) are non-profit entities with more than 30 branches in small towns across B.C. They promote employment opportunities and are lenders of last resort for potential entrepreneurs and businesses.

Core funding for the program was provided by the Minister of Western Economic Diversification (now known as Western Development.) That funding allows the company to run its office and to lend money. Various other programs were funded by Human Resources Skills Development Canada (HRSDC.)

Problems began to surface in December 2001 during Zadorozniak’s annual performance appraisal. The appraisal stated that he had potential to be an excellent manager but required improvement in several areas, including improving relationships with staff, funders and ensuring approval was sought for any costs that exceeded budget. In all other areas he met or exceeded requirements. But by Jan. 31, 2002, without further discussion with Zadorozniak, the board decided to terminate his employment for cause.

The letter was delivered to him at 9 a.m. on Feb. 2, 2002, in a meeting in the boardroom at the CFDC office with all board members present. Zadorozniak testified he read the letter, but could not concentrate on it. He did see that he was being fired for not getting along with the staff, who had assembled outside the boardroom wondering what was going on.

He left the boardroom and went out to the staff, waving the letter and asking them if they agreed he did not get along with them. He then went into his office. The board members stayed in the meeting room for a few minutes, but became concerned that he might be deleting files. Four board members went to his office, knocked and entered. A scuffle ensued while the board members tried to unplug his computer. Zadorozniak was pinned against the wall and held there until police arrived. The police escorted him from the building, which is in downtown Merritt, and put him nto a squad car on the main street.

He was taken to the police station, fingerprinted and photographed and held for the day. He was released pursuant to a restraining order not to contact the board members or the staff. However, most of the staff had already gathered at his house to lend support to him and his wife. He was not allowed to return to the office, and has never done so.

Employer bears ‘heavy’ burden of proving just cause

The British Columbia Supreme Court found he was clearly dismissed without notice.

“The defendant therefore bears the burden, which is a heavy one, of justifying the summary dismissal by showing grave or serious misconduct that goes to the root of the employment contract,” the court said.

CFDC prepared a long list of alleged misconduct, but the court said most were trivial and only a few were important. And, most importantly, Zadorozniak had little knowledge of the problems. He was doing his job, managing the office, had obtained increased funding on the major programs and had acquired desirable new premises.

Secret meetings

But in the background there were secret meetings and complaints being made. The only indication he had of this was a hint of trouble in his December performance review. Various events took place in December and January that the employer claimed, at trial, were grounds for dismissal, mostly involving one employee and a board member. But no mention of these incidents was made to Zadorozniak in the context of putting his job in jeopardy.

Then, with no discussion or warning, he was fired. The court said, despite many days of evidence, it never understood why Zadorozniak was let go, except to speculate that a conversation with the chairman of the board angered the chairman sufficiently to start the chain of events.

“Thereafter the board acted precipitously,” the court said. “In hindsight it appears that Mr. Zadorozniak’s style was going to continue to conflict with the board’s approach… but there was no event of misconduct or evidence of gross incompetence that came to light suddenly, justifying immediate dismissal for cause.”

In October 2001 an employee that didn’t get along with Zadorozniak met secretly with the board to discuss problems. But the board didn’t tell Zadorozniak about the meeting, and didn’t discuss any of the problems raised with him. The board didn’t have a “full and frank” discussion with him at that time, the court said, and the fact it didn’t shows it obviously didn’t merit a warning at that time.

“It seems the board grew increasingly dissatisfied with Zadorozniak’s style of management,” the court said. “If Mr. Zadorozniak did not suit the board’s requirements, they were entitled to dismiss him with notice. If there were matters of significant concern to them which were putting his job in jeopardy, he should have been told that and given a clear warning … instead he was given an evaluation which, while not the glowing endorsement he was expecting, was mixed and offered encouragement.”

The court then turned to how much notice he should receive. He was employed for 14 months, not a long period of time, but he was in a senior management position. The court noted that reasonable notice depends not only on the length of service, but upon the character of employment, the employee’s age and the availability of similar employment.

Court extends notice period

The court said six months would be reasonable had the case been routine.

“However, the manner of Mr. Zadorozniak’s dismissal was very unfortunate, and escalated in such a way that he was publicly humiliated, before the board, the staff and the town of Merritt,” the court said.

Though the employer said he overreacted and brought about the events of that day on himself, Zadorozniak said the unforeseen and surprising act of being dismissed without notice, then having the board members enter his office, lunge at him to unplug his computer, pin him to the wall and call the police upon his pushing back, merits an extension of the reasonable notice period. The court agreed.

“(He) was fired in the office at the start of the work day, before the full board, in circumstances which ensured the staff would be alerted,” the court said. “(He) was embarrassed in front of the staff of the CFDC … and was taken to a police car on the main street of this small town, thus ensuring that speculation over the reason for his termination would be damaging and difficult to counteract.”

CFDC also took an active role in Zadorozniak’s application for employment insurance benefits, unsuccessfully appealing his entitlement. The court said it appears the board was determined to paint him in as bad a light as possible.

The behaviour of the board caused Zadorozniak mental distress and could reasonably be seen to have an effect on his self-esteem, it said. “More importantly, it is also reasonable to infer an effect on his ability to obtain other employment, given the importance of his job in such a small town and the public nature of the dismissal,” it said. Citing the landmark 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision in Wallace v. United Grain Growers, the court extended the notice period by six months for the manner in which the dismissal was handled.

For more information see:

Zadorozniak v. Community Futures Development Corp. of Nicola Valley, 2005 CarswellBC 62, 2005 BCSC 26, 38 C.C.E.L. (3d) 70 (B.C. S.C.)

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