Fired police chief can’t stay in job during trial

Court denies injunction application by West Vancouver police chief to remain on the job during wrongful dismissal proceedings

A police chief won’t be allowed to stay on the job while his wrongful dismissal case is decided by the British Columbia Supreme Court.

Scott Armstrong had been a member of the West Vancouver Police Department since 1977. After he served several stints as the acting police chief, the police board appointed him to the position full-time on Feb. 1, 2006. Armstrong’s appointment included a written agreement indicating the board would evaluate his performance during his first year of service, after which they would be able to terminate him if they felt he did not meet expectations. The agreement stipulated if that happened, Armstrong would be entitled to six months’ pay. After one year, the board could terminate him at any time but would have to pay him 18 months’ salary.

Controversy arrived early in his tenure as it became evident Armstrong had been involved in after-hours drinking at police headquarters and a constable was convicted for drunk driving. On Dec. 4, 2006, the police board told Armstrong he was being terminated, effective Jan. 31, 2007. The board indicated he had failed to meet their expectations during the evaluation period specified in the employment agreement and they were exercising their option to terminate him. Armstrong contested the decision, claiming wrongful dismissal and the termination clauses in the agreement were unlawful and against public interest.

Armstrong sought an injunction from the B.C. Supreme Court to stay on as chief until the matter was decided. He felt if he was terminated before the case was resolved, he would suffer “irreparable harm” to his career in the police services. He had been a police officer for 30 years and it would be difficult for him to find other work. He had accumulated enough leave to take time off while the new acting chief did the job, so it was possible for him to officially remain in the position until the court process was completed. Armstrong also noted he the board had asked him to remain as chief for two months after his notice of termination.

Armstrong also sought a declaration from the court that the evaluation period and termination clauses of the agreement were void. He argued the position of police chief is a public office and should not be subject to “fear or favour” in the performance of his duties. The board should not have the power to dismiss him as that would potentially give them influence over him, which would be against the public interest.

The police board countered an injunction would create an undesirable and dysfunctional situation with the police chief, which was not in the public interest. It also argued the assessment period stipulated in the employment agreement was clearly and narrowly defined and allowed them to ensure they had a suitable candidate for such an important position.

The court noted an injunction should only be granted if there is the possibility that damages won would not be sufficient and the applicant would suffer hardship as a result. It pointed out that Armstrong was seeking damages for wrongful dismissal as well as aggravated and punitive damages from the police board. The court deemed it unlikely the police board would not be able to pay the damages in the event Armstrong prevailed.

“The payment of damages for wrongful dismissal is considered to be an ‘adequate remedy’ if Chief Armstrong succeeds in his action,” the court said. “Therefore, the case for an injunction is not made out.”

The court also felt the police board needed to be able to carry out its responsibilities and the potential disruption was greater if Armstrong remained as chief during the court proceedings. The court dismissed Armstrong’s injunction application.

For more information see:

Armstrong v. West Vancouver Police Board, 2007 CarswellBC 219 (B.C. S.C.)

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