Employee assaults co-worker, gets $25,000 and reinstatement

Employer failed to consider evidence of medical condition that may have played a role in violent incident in the workplace

Workplace violence is a serious concern for employers. It gets the attention of not only employees, but also authorities and sometimes the general public. Employers have an obligation to limit the potential for violent incidents in the workplace as much as possible, and this includes severe discipline for employees guilty of it. While dismissal can often be the solution, employers must keep in mind that — like any misconduct — any evidence pointing to a potential medical issue related to the misconduct — and potential need for accommodation — should be heeded.

A federal government department should have accommodated an employee with medical issues rather than firing him for committing a violent act in the workplace, the Canada Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board has ruled.

Naim Rahmani was hired by Transport Canada in 2003 as a senior engineer in the Standards Branch, National Aircraft Certification, in that branch’s Electronic Equipment Design Assurance Section. He worked with clients looking to have their airplanes accredited so they could be authorized for use in Canada, examining the computer components of various elements of airplanes including the engines, fuselage, and flight controls.

Rahmani had a colleague, Patrick Desbiens, who started working with Transport Canada around the same time as him. Desbiens initially had a classification one level higher than Rahmani, but a couple of years later Rahmani advanced to that level. Though they had identical duties and the same manager, the two men worked on different projects.

Over time, Rahmani’s relationship with some of his co-workers became strained, particularly with Desbiens. In 2008, Rahmani criticized Desbiens for incompetence, a lighter workload, and favouritism. He also claimed his co-workers didn’t work as hard as he did and his criticisms were only professional, not personal.

As things deteriorated, Rahmani began looking for a way to leave his section. He also requested a leave without pay for one or two years, but his manager refused due to the section’s operational needs.

From 2009 to 2012, Rahmani’s workplace relationships continued to worsen to the point where he sometimes had outbursts. He took sick leave several times and provided medical certificates. He also took parental leave for eight months in 2010.

Despite his issues with colleagues, Rahmani had good relationships with clients and employees in other sections, receiving congratulations for team dedication on various projects.

In early 2012, Rhamani applied for an avionics position and was refused, which he felt was unfair because he believed he was the better candidate. He was unhappy and wanted to leave the section and took a three-week sick leave in January supported by a medical certificate.

Worker’s frustration boils over

Rahmani returned to work from his sick leave on Feb. 10 to find that his perceived workplace nemesis, Desbiens, had been appointed manager of his team. Not surprisingly, Rahmani felt this sealed his fate in the section and he wouldn’t be able to leave for another opportunity.

A few minutes after Rahmani read the email announcing Desbien’s appointment, Desbien came into Rahmani’s office to check his working hours, as he had received a request for travel authorization for Rahmani that included overtime pay. Rahmani perceived this as an attack against him and felt Desbiens was rubbing it in as soon as he could, so he reacted negatively.

Desbiens left Rahmani’s office and went to see the chief of engineering, but the chief was absent. Rahmani then decided he should clear things up with Desbiens, so he went to the latter’s office.

According to Desbiens, he was at his desk with his back to the door when he felt Rahmani behind him before hearing him speak while standing above him. He said he reflexively got up and turned to face Rahmani, who then insulted him. He claimed he told Rahmani to leave his office and Rahmani responded by striking him on the left side of his face, knocking his glasses off. Desbiens picked up his glasses and left his office, with Rahmani following him. He said he was afraid of Rahmani and rain down the stairs to the ground floor to ask for help from the security station, with Rahmani following along.

Rahmani claimed that when he entered the office, Desbiens immediately stood up and he pushed him in a defensive move. He later acknowledged that he may have pushed hard because Desbiens’ cheek was red for a while afterwards, but he said he had no intention of hitting Desbiens. He said he followed Desbiens out of the office because he didn’t want Desbiens to exaggerate what had happened.

Transport Canada conducted an investigation into the incident. Other employees reported hearing the slap and loud voices as well as seeing a red mark on Desbiens’ face. The security officers said Desbiens was in a serious emotional state when he approached them. All indicators pointed to an aggressive violent act by Rahmani, and Rahmani’s explanation that he acted defensively didn’t stand up since all he had to do if he felt threatened was to leave the office, since he was closer to the door with no obstacles.

Rahmani’s access card to the building was revoked and he was placed on telework. He worked from home on several projects and reported directly to the chief of engineering while the investigation continued. In July 2012, Rahmani presented a medical certificate requesting two months sick leave, but his sick leave credits were almost used up so paid sick leave was refused. Rahmani then requested paid leave from his accumulated annual leave, but this was also refused, because Transport Canada didn’t allow regular leave to be used as sick leave. The employer was beginning to believe Rahmani used sick leave as blackmail, as he often took it when he didn’t get what he wanted.

Transport Canada completed the investigation and determined Rahmani was guilty of workplace violence. Before it decided on discipline, management met with Rahmani to get his point of view. Rahmani initially said at a June 29 meeting that his act was “regrettable and inappropriate” and he apologized for striking someone. He refused to answer any further questions without being provided them in advance.

At a second meeting on Aug. 22, Rahmani stuck by his version of events that he acted defensively and he claimed he was a victim of prejudices from Desbiens and other employees. He presented a medical certificate implying that he had a medical condition that might explain why he acted out, as well as medication that could cause irritability and mood swings.

Medical assessment

Transport Canada asked Health Canada to assess Rahmani’s fitness to work, including whether his medical condition could have been a factor in his violent act and whether he could be reinstated to work.

The Health Canada assessment dated Jan. 24, 2013, indicated Rahmani was “unfit for any work at present,” and a follow-up letter indicated the condition for which Rahmani was being treated had “the potential to affect a person’s behaviour and his or her ability to react to stress,” with the caveat that it couldn’t rule on the medical aspect of the Feb. 10, 2012, incident because Rahmant wasn’t evaluated at that time.

Transport Canada sought clarification on potential causality between Rahmani’s medical condition and the Feb. 10 incident and Health Canada once again indicated it didn’t evaluate him at the time, but noted that “it is plausible and consistent with the medical information in his file that his medical condition was similar in February 2012.”

On Apr. 4, 2013, Transport Canada terminated Rahmani’s employment for voluntarily committing a violent act at work that broke the bond of trust. The department’s decision also factored in that Rahmani had never apologized and other employees were afraid to work with him.

The board noted that Transport Canada had an obligation to provide a healthy and safe working environment and so it had to uphold the idea that violence in the workplace was unacceptable. This left no doubt that Rahmani’s actions warranted a “severe penalty.”

However, the board considered several mitigating factors. It disagreed that Rahmani showed no remorse, as he admitted the incident was regrettable, though he felt he was being picked on. The board found Desbiens, while not deserving to be assaulted, wasn’t an “innocent victim” since there was animosity between him and Rahmani and “it is impossible to believe that he did not think of spiting” Rahmani by appearing at his door a few minutes after the announcement of his appointment as team supervisor, said the board.

The board also found Transport Canada should have been aware of Rahmani’s distress — he was unhappy, had bad relations with Desbiens and other employees, he had just come back from sick leave, and Rahmani produced a medical note from his doctor at the first investigation meeting indicating his actions might have been attributable to a medical condition. Rahmani later said he didn’t provide the note until months after the incident because he didn’t want to share his health problems at work, which the board found was reasonable given the stigma mental health issues still have.

In addition to the medical note, the Health Canada assessment also indicated Rahmani may have been affected by his condition and medication, but this seemed to be discounted by the employer. The board found Transport Canada discriminated against Rahmani because of his medical disability when it refused to consider his state of health at the time of termination and didn’t even consider the possibility of accommodation.

“The employer cannot deny that when (Rahmani) was terminated in April 2013, it was aware of a medical situation that could at least partly explain (his) unfortunate act,” said the board.

Transport Canada was ordered to reinstate Rahmani to his job as of January 2016, which was the date Rahmani was declared by a psychiatrist to be fit to return to work. Due to the seriousness of Rahmani’s misconduct, he was not entitled to any retroactive pay since his termination. In addition, Transport Canada was ordered to pay Rahmani $15,000 for pain and suffering and $10,000 in special compensation for the discrimination he suffered. Rahmani was also required to comply with the treatment plan prescribed by doctors for his condition.

For more information see:

Rahmani c. Administrateur general (ministère des Transports), 2016 CarswellNat 460 (Can. Public Service Lab. Rel. and Emp. Bd.).

Latest stories