What happens if you find out your former employer is spreading misinformation about you? Earlier this year, an Ontario court had to decide on this exact issue and made a rare award of both punitive and defamation damages against a former employer.
The employer carries on business as a full-service, fully registered investment firm. The employee in this case had worked for the employer as a securities trader. She joined the firm in 2008 and signed an employment agreement that set out the terms of her employment.
Part of her contract of employment required her to maintain a certain amount of money in a reserve account to absorb losses which commonly occur in trading. During a meeting on April 2, 2009, the employer asked her to increase her contribution to the reserve above what she believed her contract had set out. The employee said she would have to think about it.
The employment relationship ended the next day. The employee claims she was constructively dismissed and resigned by delivering a letter to this effect shortly before noon on April 3, 2009. The employer claims it terminated her employment for cause and delivered a letter to this effect late in the day on April 3, 2009.
In addition, on April 4, 2009, the employer filed a Notice of Termination on the National Research Database maintained by its regulator, the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada (“IIROC”). The notice stated that the employee was terminated for cause for failing to follow trading policies and engaging in unauthorized trading.
The employer commenced an action claiming that the employee owed monies arising out of losses she incurred as a trader. The employee counterclaimed for damages for constructive dismissal and defamation.
First, the court had to decide whether the employee was constructive dismissed or whether she was terminated for cause. After reviewing the contents of the contract, the court found that the increase to the reserve amount requested by the employer was not in accordance with the terms of the employee’s contract. The court found that her failure to pay the sums demanded did not constitute grounds to terminate her employment for cause and amounted to constructive dismissal. Constructive dismissal occurs where an employer makes a unilateral and fundamental change to a term or condition of an employment contract without providing reasonable notice.
The court awarded the employee just over $60,000 in pay in lieu of notice, representing six months of income and vacation pay.
The court then turned to the question of defamation. The employee was claiming $25,000 for damages for defamation arising out of the notice that the employer provided to IIROC concerning her departure. The employer denied that the notice was defamatory and asserted the defence of justification; in other words, it asserted that the statements were true. In the alternative, it argued that, if the statements were defamatory and untrue, the defence of qualified privilege applied.
The court began by stating that a “statement is defamatory if it tends to lower the reputation of a claimant in the eyes of a reasonable person” and that it is “defamatory to suggest that a person has been guilty of dishonest or disreputable conduct in a profession or calling.” Based on the evidence, the court found that the information included in the notice was defamatory.
The court then considered the employer’s first defence of justification. It stated that this defence is established if the statement made is substantially true. Additionally, the statement must be substantially true at the time that it is published. The court rejected this defence. It found that the employer failed to produce any documents to support its allegation of unauthorized trading.
Finally, the court considered the employer’s defence of qualified privilege. The court explained that this defence provides that, in some circumstances, the maker of a statement should have immunity from defamation and that qualified privilege arises where the maker of the statement has an interest in making the statement and those to whom the statement is made have an interest in receiving it.
While the court accepted the fact that the employer had an obligation to inform IIROC of the reasons for the employee’s departure, it noted that the defence of qualified privilege requires that the statements made are reasonably appropriate to the circumstances and that they are made honestly and in good faith. It found that the employer was “either being untruthful in its filing or was reckless with regard to the truth when making the filing.” As a result, the court rejected the defence and awarded the employee $25,000 for defamation damages.
In addition, the court considered whether the employee was entitled to punitive damages. The court stated that punitive damages are intended to punish the wrongful actor, not to compensate the complainant. In this case, it found that punitive damages should be awarded for several reasons, including deterrence, finding that “[this] is a case of indefensible, reprehensible conduct steadfastly maintained for eight and a half years.”
The court made an additional award of $25,000 in punitive damages.
If you have questions about unfair practices in the workplace, wrongful dismissal, or any other employment matter, contact the Mississauga employment lawyers at Campbell Bader LLP. We regularly advise both employers and employees on a wide range of issues that arise at work. Contact us online or by phone at 905 828 2247 to schedule a consultation.