Bad faith termination of employment

Being dismissed from employment is always upsetting, but sometimes the employer is dishonest or unduly insensitive in the course of the termination.  Where the employee experiences mental distress as a result of this kind of bad faith termination, courts may award extra damages.

Reasonable notice damages compensate the employee for breach of the employment contract; aggravated damages compensate the employee for mental distress arising from the employer's manner of dismissing; and punitive damages punish the employer for malicious wrongdoing.

Aggravated and punitive damages are hard to win.  Earlier this year Brendan Harvey obtained aggravated damages for our client in the case of a termination that was clearly carried out in dishonestly and in bad faith: Valle Torres v. Vancouver Native Health Society.

Facts - a perfectly bad faith termination

Mr. Valle Torres had been employed at the Vancouver Native Health Society for more than 20 years.  He was recognized for his work.  Over time, he was promoted to the position of Project Manager of the Phil Bouvier Family Centre, which the employer operated in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side.  Mr. Valle Torres had spent his whole career in Canada working in the Downtown East Side, and was exceptionally committed to and proud of his work.  He thought of his coworkers as his family, inviting them to his children's weddings and even on family vacations.

In May 2018, some employees of the Bouvier Centre applied for union certification.  The employer received notice of the certification bid on May 30, and decided to shut down the Bouvier Centre immediately.   The employer proceeded to:

  • Dismiss Mr. Valle Torres immediately and without warning, deceitfully citing a “reorganization”;
  • Provide no notice or severance pay;
  • Take away Mr. Valle Torres’ keys and escort him out of the building;
  • Distribute a letter among the Downtown East Side social services community notifying all of Mr. Valle Torres’ professional contacts that he was no longer employed by or associated with VNHS;
  • The following workday, introduce Mr. Valle Torres’ replacement;
  • Issue a lawyer’s “cease and desist” letter to Mr. Valle Torres claiming he had defamed VNHS and threatening to sue him if he had any further contact with the remaining employees of VNHS;
  • Filed submissions with the Labour Relations Board alleging that Mr. Valle Torres was dismissed for cause due to incompetence, poor performance, and disloyalty; and
  • Continued to demonstrate outright hostility toward Mr. Valle Torres, right through the trial of his case.

Mental distress and bad faith dismissal

Mr. Valle Torres was crushed by the way he was treated by the Vancouver Native Health Society. He felt intimidated by the cease and desist letter. As he described his experience in trial: “They not only want to kill my spirit, they want to kill my integrity and my reputation.” He became withdrawn, lost interest in his usual activities, and had to take medications for anxiety and sleeplessness.

The employer didn’t improve its performance at trial.  Its witnesses were untruthful and filled with animosity toward Mr. Valle Torres.  They eventually admitted that Mr. Valle Torres lacked the skills for his job of 20 years because he was not Indigenous.  The witnesses went to great lengths to deny ever having been friends with Mr. Valle Torres.

Judgment - aggravated and punitive damages plus special costs

After an emotional trial, Mr. Valle Torres was awarded 24 months’ pay in lieu of reasonable notice (the maximum award in BC), his entire accrued vacation pay of $41,700, and pay in lieu of CPP and MSP premiums for 24 months.  She also awarded $30,000 in aggravated damages because of the termination in bad faith.

The judge found that punitive damages were appropriate because of the employer's terrible conduct, but declined to award them because of the impact further financial burden would have on the families the employer served.  In a separate application after the trial, she ordered the employer to pay all of Mr. Valle Torres’ legal fees because of its reprehensible conduct in the course of the litigation.  We think these exceptional remedies were quite appropriate for the manner in which Mr. Valle Torres was dismissed, after a long and dedicated employment.

If you've been dismissed and the employer’s conduct has caused you symptoms of depression or mental distress, you should seek care from your doctor, and obtain legal advice.  Talk with a one of our employment lawyers today to learn your rights.

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