Bullied Employee Awarded Aggravated & Punitive Damages For Wrongful Termination
In an undefended case out of Ontario, Horner v. 897469 Ontario Inc. o/a Superior Coatings, 2018 ONSC 121, a short term employee was awarded $10,000 for wrongful termination and an additional $30,000 in aggravated and punitive damages for the aggravation of her known depression and the callous manner of termination when the employer failed to properly address workplace bullying.
Case Details and Depression
In this case, the plaintiff was hired in July 2016 by Superior Coatings, a paint store in Thunder Bay Ontario. Upon employment, the plaintiff told her supervisor that she was being treated for depression, but there was no indication that the depression would adversely affect her work. Shortly after commencing her employment, the plaintiff started getting harassed by another employee who routinely belittled her when the two were alone or in front of others.
The harassment and bullying continued throughout the plaintiff’s employment and in December 2016 resulted in an incident where the bully refused to move out of the way of a drawer that the plaintiff needed access. This resulted in a heated exchange between the two employees in front of customers. The plaintiff immediately reported the incident to her supervisor requesting to leave for the remainder of the day. In response, the supervisor, not taking the issue seriously, saluted the plaintiff and said “goodbye.” Feeling that her complaints to her supervisor were not being taking seriously, the plaintiff reported her concerns to the owner of the business, who allowed her to take the following day off and advised that they “would figure this out in the new year.”
Termination Letter Stuck to Door
A few days later, the plaintiff received a letter from her employer that was stuck in the back door of her house, but dated the day in which she spoke to her supervisor and the owner of the store. The letter, signed by the owner of the business stated:
“This is to inform you that your employment with Superior Coatings has been terminated on 22 December, 2016.
Your position is been terminated with cause as result of your conduct. On December 22, 2016, you were at the retail counter and wanted access to a drawer that your fellow employee… was standing in front of. You lost your temper and angrily ranted against… while he was serving the customer. You have reacted in this unprofessional manner on other occasions and have been reprimanded for it. I cannot and will not condone this type of behaviour.
Statutory law does not require an employer to provide any notice or paying in lieu of notice when employee is terminated with cause.
If you have any questions or concerns regarding the above, please do not hesitate to contact me.”
The Consequences of Superior Coatings Actions
The plaintiff was devastated as a result of the termination of her employment and spiralled into a further depression. The plaintiff’s doctor increased the dosage of her anti-depression prescription and suggested counselling. However, the plaintiff lost approximately 30 pounds, had difficulty concentrating and was suffering from serious anxiety. The side effects of the new medication caused nausea and fatigue. She became isolated, alienating herself from friends and family and was reclusive. She did not cook, clean or sometimes, shower. Her claim for employment insurance benefits was denied because the employer had maintained that the termination was for cause.
Based on the aforementioned, and relying on the decision of Boucher v. Wal-Mart Canada Corp., 2014 ONCA 419, the court maintained:
 The plaintiff alleges that the defendant allowed bullying, violence and harassment in the workplace and further that the plaintiff was terminated because she complained of the bullying, violence and harassment.
 In Boucher v. Wal-Mart Canada Corp., 2014 ONCA 419 (CanLII) the court said:
 …Punitive damage awards are not compensatory. They are meant to punish the defendant in exceptional cases where the defendant’s conduct has been “malicious, oppressive and high-handed” and “represents a marked departure from the ordinary standards of decent behaviour”, see Whiten, at para. 36
 I am satisfied on the evidence that the plaintiff was harassed in the workplace and that the employer, rather than investigating, terminated the plaintiff. As such, I find that the employer’s conduct was malicious, oppressive and high-handed and must be deterred. Punitive damages are awarded only where compensatory damages are insufficient to deter. In this case, compensatory damages awarded were $10,000 for wrongful dismissal. I have also awarded aggravated damages of $20,000. In my opinion, these awards are insufficient to deter this conduct. I award $10,000 as punitive damages.
Additionally, finding that the plaintiff was also entitled to aggravated damages for the manner in which the employer terminated her employment, the court held:
 In this case, rather than “figuring this out in the new year” as he told the plaintiff he would, the employer immediately terminated the plaintiff’s employment without further discussion and delivered a termination letter during the Christmas holidays by sticking a letter in the back door. The manner of the termination was beyond “cold and brusque”; it was cowardly. The aftermath of the termination for the plaintiff has been discussed earlier.
 I am satisfied that the manner of termination did cause an aggravation of the plaintiff’s pre-existing depression and that this is an appropriate case for aggravated or “moral” damages. I award the plaintiff the sum of $20,000 for aggravated damages.
What we Can Learn from This Case
This case serves as an interesting example of how an employer can be on the hook for enhanced damages for failing to properly address workplace bullying and terminating the complainant rather than conducting a proper investigation. Additionally, the high handed and callous manner of dismissal can attract enhanced damages when an employer fails to conduct a termination in a professional and dignified manner.
Scott Chambers is an employment and human resources lawyer at Doak Shirreff Lawyers LLP. Scott can be reached at 250-979-2527 or at [email protected] for any employment matters.