Restaurant manager gets in hot water

Employee's neighbour created scene at restaurant and embarrassed owner

This instalment of You Make the Call involves confusion over whether an employee was fired or suspended.

Sarah Chapple, 38, was a manager at Il Caminetto, a restaurant in Whistler, B.C. She had been employed by the restaurant’s owner since 1994, working at both restaurants he owned. As manager, it was her job to ensure the restaurant ran smoothly and customers were looked after.

On Jan. 20, 2007, Chapple’s neighbour made a reservation for eight people. Chapple didn’t take the reservation and wasn’t aware of it as she didn’t know her neighbour’s last name. It was a busy evening and when the party showed up, they had to wait, but Chapple ensured they had drinks and antipasto while waiting. While they were waiting, the restaurant’s owner arrived with a party of seven people and was seated immediately.

Chapple had plans later in the evening and had arranged to leave early that night. Once she ensure her neighbour and other customers were looked after and things were going well, she left by the back door. However, soon after, the neighbour approach the owner’s table and angrily said he had been given her table. It caused a scene and the owner was embarrassed and angry.

The owner went to look for Chapple after the neighbour said she was a friend of hers. Two employees overheard the owner talking angrily to another employee and saying it was Chapple’s last night in the restaurant, though the owner denied saying it.

The next day, Chapple heard about the incident and called the owner. The owner said the neighbour had ruined his evening and embarrassed him and said she needed to write a letter of apology. According to Chapple, he also said it had “cost you your job,” but the owner said he needed a letter of apology before she came back to her job.

The neighbour sent an apology letter that night and explained Chapple wasn’t involved in the situation and didn’t want him to fire Chapple. Two days later, on Jan. 23, Chapple called to arrange her final paycheque. The restaurant then prepared a letter outlining a four-day suspension and the owner intended to give it to her in person and discuss it. However, Chapple was away and he wasn’t able to contact her.

On Feb. 6, after several days of exchanged messages, Chapple received a letter saying she was suspended and not terminated and she could return to work. Chapple responded that she had been told she had been terminated and word had spread in the restaurant community, affecting her reputation. She requested severance pay of 13 months.

You Make the Call

Was Chapple’s employment terminated?
Did the restaurant suspend her?

If you said Chapple’s employment was terminated, you’re right. The court found despite the exchanging of messages, the owner didn’t tell Chapple she was only suspended until two weeks after the incident, despite the fact he had her phone number, email address and home address. Given what he said to her the day after, he effectively terminated her employment. The court also found it was unlikely she would have left town without resolving the situation if she felt she was only suspended for a few days.

The court also found even if Chapple was suspended, discipline was unfair in the circumstances. The apology letter from Chapple’s neighbour indicated Chapple had nothing to do with the incident and disciplining her for it was unfair. Since the neighbour said in the letter she didn’t want Chapple to be fired, the owner should have assumed Chapple had told her as much.

The court also said the situation had poisoned the working relationship to the point where the owner’s offer of her returning after her suspension wasn’t a legitimate option for mitigation of damages. The court ordered the restaurant to pay Chapple 15 months’ pay in lieu of notice, totalling $62,641 in salary plus $71,375 for loss of her share of gratuities, minus $45,578 she earned during the 15-month period at another restaurant. See Chapple v. Umberto Management Ltd., 2009 CarswellBC 3769 (B.C. S.C.).

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