Employer not to blame for breakdown (On law)

Work can be stressful but employer’s actions must be extreme and calculated for courts to award compensation

Mental suffering at work is real. But that doesn’t mean employers will always be held responsible, as seen in a court decision handed down last year in Ontario.

Having just been denied a promotion at work, Maria Amaral was devastated. As an employee of the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency for 23 years, Amaral thought she should have been promoted to manager. But her boss, Caroline Rioux, thought otherwise. Shortly after she didn’t get the promotion, Amaral was disciplined for refusing a directive to write a letter.

Dejected, Amaral let her performance suffer further and she began missing more work. Rioux warned Amaral to shape up and eventually the agency relieved Amaral of some of her duties. However, her absenteeism and job performance worsened. The agency placed her on probation, putting her on the path to dismissal.

Two days after being placed on probation, Amaral suffered a serious mental breakdown, believing the agency wanted her to leave. She never returned to work. Her next contact with her employer was through her lawyer, who said Amaral was suing the agency, its president, vice-president and Rioux for the considerable damages flowing from her breakdown. She claimed they deliberately or negligently inflicted mental suffering on her.

Justice Ruth Mesbur of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice concluded no one could have foreseen Amaral’s reaction and neither the agency, nor its employees, were responsible for her breakdown. More importantly, the court confirmed the threshold to find liability for intentionally inflicting psychiatric damage suffered by employees is significant. The employer’s conduct must be extreme, flagrant or outrageous and calculated to deliberately impose harm.

Following recent high-profile Canadian judgments for harassment and mental suffering, some lawyers representing employees have been adding zeroes to their damage claims, believing perceived mistreatment equates a significant lawsuit. But they shouldn’t be so hasty. Workplace law doesn’t provide compensation for any stress suffered by employees at the hands of an employer — the conduct in question must be objectively intolerable in the eyes of the judge, not just the worker.

Why did the employer in Amaral succeed in its defence?

Management can be demanding, unsympathetic or insensitive but that doesn’t mean they should be blamed for mental distress. Amaral alleged her employer made unreasonable workload demands, criticized her for failing to meet its expectations, excluded her from meetings, disparaged her and threatened her, along with a slew of other allegations, most of which were defeated at trial.

According to the judge, even if the allegations were proven, legal precedent shows no damages awarded for such conduct.

While Amaral may have felt the agency bullied or intimidated her, the court was required to consider the employer’s actions objectively, rather than through Amaral’s subjective point of view. Often, where the conduct complained of is not objectively clear or easily established, employees are better advised to seek another job rather than remain profoundly unhappy or engage in a lawsuit with grim prospects of recovery.

Employees should push for a negotiated resolution instead of steadfastly marching to the courtroom doors. Had Amaral heeded this advice, she would have been cashing settlement cheques rather than having to pay almost $330,000 in legal costs to her former employer. And both sides would save time, effort and some costs by avoiding court.

For examples of damages being awarded for intentionally inflicting mental distress see Boothman v. Canada and Prinzo v. Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. Damages were not awarded in Rinaldo v. Royal Ontario Museum, Noseworthy v. Riverside Pontiac-Buick Ltd. and Sulz v. Canada.

For more information see:

Amaral et al. v. Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency (July 25, 2007) Doc. No. 01-CV-2129980 (Ont. S.C.J.).

Boothman v. Canada, 1993 CarswellNat 1328 (Fed. T.D.).

Prinzo v. Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, 2002 CarswellOnt 2263 (Ont. C.A.).

Rinaldo v. Royal Ontario Museum, 2004 CarswellOnt 5209 (Ont. S.C.J.).

Noseworthy v. Riverside Pontiac-Buick Ltd., 1998 CarswellOnt 4889 (Ont. C.A.).

Sulz v. Canada (Attorney General), 2006 CarswellBC 3137 (B.C. C.A.).

Daniel A. Lublin is a Toronto-based employment lawyer focusing on the law of dismissal. He can be reached at [email protected] or visit www.toronto-employmentlawyer.com.

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