Ontario: Ruling Opens Door to Civil Claims for Harassment

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By Peter Menyasz

A recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruling granting C$141,000 ($105,750) in damages to a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer in a civil damages claim for workplace harassment potentially opens the door for other employees to file civil claims for harassment damages, employment lawyers say ( Merrifield v. Attorney General, Ontario Superior Court of Justice, No. CV-13-00333733-00OT, 02/28/17).

The court found that RCMP officer Peter Merrifield was harassed and bullied by his superiors, damaging his reputation and career and causing severe emotional distress, Evan Campbell, an associate with Miller Thomson LLP in Guelph, Ontario, said Aug. 7. The finding is consistent with 2016 amendments to Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act requiring employers to adopt and implement harassment policies and to investigate any harassment complaint that is, in the words of the statute, “appropriate in the circumstances,” Campbell told Bloomberg BNA.

“The decision reaffirms that all employers must take workplace harassment seriously and respond appropriately,” Campbell said. “The proper application of a workplace harassment program will greatly assist in preventing situations from reaching the threshold necessary to constitute the tort of harassment.”

The 900-paragraph ruling confirmed that the test for whether a case qualifies as harassment depends on whether the conduct was outrageous, was intended to cause emotional stress or had a general disregard for causing such stress, and caused severe or extreme emotional distress as a direct result of the harassment, Campbell said.

The government has appealed the ruling, Svetlana MacBain, an appeals case management officer with the Ontario Court of Appeal, said Aug. 8.

‘Significant' Depression and PTSD

The federal police service’s treatment of Merrifield was outrageous and directly caused severe emotional distress, Justice Mary E. Vallee said Feb. 28 in the 179-page ruling, which upheld the availability of the tort of harassment and awarded C$100,000 ($75,000) in general damages and C$41,000 ($30,750) in special damages.

“Mr. Merrifield suffered from significant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the actions taken by the RCMP,” Vallee said. “He was unable to work for various periods of time and at one point disengaged from his family and spent his days lying on a sofa. He did not bathe and developed bed sores.”

“Not only did Mr. Merrifield suffer from significant mental health issues as a result of the actions taken by the RCMP,” Vallee said, but “those actions also stained his reputation.”

The ruling noted that the RCMP adopted a policy to provide a safe and harassment-free workplace for its employees, but the policy wasn’t based on an undertaking to act in the best interests of its employees and members.

Merrifield, a successful member of the RCMP since 1998 who was involved in national security investigations and obtained convictions in several high-profile prosecutions, alleged that he started receiving adverse treatment from superiors after seeking in 2005 a nomination as a candidate for the federal Conservative Party. Merrifield alleged that his superiors made unjustified and unwarranted decisions about his work placements and that he was unfairly investigated and punitively transferred. The ruling supported those allegations and criticized the police force's ignoring of Merrifield’s harassment complaints as going “beyond all standards of what is right or decent.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Menyasz in Ottawa at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rick Vollmar at rvollmar@bna.com

For More Information

The ruling in Merrifield v. Attorney General is available here.

For more information on Ontario HR law and regulation, see the Ontario primer.

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