Family squabble leads to 24-month notice award

Stroppa v. Globe Foundry Ltd., 2005 CarswellBC 521, 2005 BCSC 312 (B.C. Public Service Adjud. Bd.)

A British Columbia adjudication board has ruled in favour of a co-owner of a family business who was fired without cause. The board said Betty Ann Stroppa did not realize she was a subordinate to her brother, who was the company’s president, when she refused to follow his directives.

Stroppa worked for 27 years for Globe Foundry Ltd. She owned 25 per cent of the shares in the company and was also the company’s secretary and treasurer. Her brother owned 37 per cent and was the president, and her sister owned 25 per cent and was vice-president.

At a directors’ meeting in February 2000 Stroppa was told to take a sabbatical to complete a time-management course, seek anger management counselling and try to stop smoking. After three months her progress was to be reviewed.

Stroppa took some courses and returned to work in July 2000, but in October she was dismissed and offered $50,000 in severance. She filed an action for wrongful dismissal.

Stroppa claimed she and the president were equal partners in the company, with her responsible for the office and he for the factory. She said she knew he didn’t like the way she ran the office and took his complaints under advisement because he was her partner, but she considered the ultimate decisions on those matters to be hers.

The company argued the brother was the manager of the business and he was her supervisor. She did not heed his directions, which led to the directors’ resolutions over her performance and ultimately her dismissal was for cause, it said.

The adjudication board held the management hierarchy at Globe Foundry determined whether or not she was wrongfully dismissed. The board expressed frustration there were no documents showing the management structure, but ultimately ruled against Stroppa’s claim that she had an equal position as her brother.

It “accords with common sense that there would be one overall manager who would make the final decision if disagreements arose … (the brother) had authority to direct Ms. Stroppa in the course of her employment as office manager.”

The board added, however, that Stroppa did not realize her brother was an authority over her and this perception was not unreasonable. The manner in which he dealt with her was inconsistent with his authority. This reinforced her belief he did not have authority over her.

There was a fundamental misunderstanding over the authority issue and thus Stroppa’s work performance could not be fairly assessed. Essentially Stroppa was dismissed for insubordination, but it would be grossly unfair to find insubordination in someone who honestly believed she wasn’t obliged to take the directions given her, ruled the board.

It ruled Stroppa was fired without just cause and was entitled to notice. Stroppa was 47 when dismissed, having worked for 27 years for Globe Foundry. She expected to work there for the rest of her employment life.

Being fired left her devastated and depressed, having been ousted from a family business she loved being part of. The board awarded her 24 months’ notice, less four months for failure to mitigate her damages.

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