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Dealing with malicious sexual harassment claim

Baxter had been working at a central warehouse for a chain of hardware store for 17 years. He had the unlucky responsibility of supervising the boss’s daughter. He began to notice that he was getting complaints about her behaviour. Apparently she is obsessed with one of her co-workers and would rearrange her work in order to spend time visiting him. People were complaining about blocked aisles in the warehouse as these two stood around chatting. In an effort to deal with the problem, Baxter transferred her to another area where she wouldn’t be working with her boyfriend. Apparently, the boss’s daughter told others she would get even with Baxter for having transferred her and that he would pay for it.
 
Sure enough, right after she was transferred, she told her daddy that Baxter, four months before, had belly-bumped her in a storage room. She had yelled and another employee came in and she left. She said that Baxter’s legs ended up between hers.
 
Belly-bumping was described by others as a silly thing Baxter and other male co-workers did when they were happy and was not meant to be sexual. There was evidence that Baxter and two other men would engage in this celebratory move when they were in a good mood, or everything was working right or about to go on holidays.
 
The boss, upon hearing from his daughter, turned the matter over to somebody from HR who had little experience investigating sexual harassment complaints. He spoke to the boss’s daughter but never bothered to even get a written statement from her. He called Baxter into a meeting and suspended him. All he told Baxter was that he was being suspended for sexual harassment but he refused to provide particulars. When Baxter begged him, in tears, to tell him what he had done, all he would say, “You know what you did.”
 
Baxter was marched out of the building without even being able to collect his belongings.  A few weeks later, after he involved a lawyer, he did receive details of the allegation against him. Baxter refused to attend a further meeting with the employer without his legal counsel present so it never happened.
 
While all this was happening, 37 other employees signed a petition supporting Baxter. Everyone in the plant had heard that he was suspended for sexual harassment. Eventually, the employer sent Baxter a letter indicating that he was terminated for sexual harassment and for insubordination for refusing to attend at a meeting with his employer without a lawyer present. Interestingly, the HR representative said he refused to meet with Baxter along with his lawyer because he was hoping to get a confession from Baxter.
 
It’s very unique but this case was actually heard by a jury when it went to trial. Juries don’t give reasons for their decision. They awarded Baxter 24 months’ pay in lieu of notice. The jury also awarded $60,000.00 for defamation, $200,000.00 for aggravated damages and $300,000.00 for punitive damages.
 
Of course, with that size of an award this matter was appealed and the court overturned the aggravated damages and reduced the punitive damages to $75,000.00. It left the $60,000.00 award for defamation as it was.
 
That defamation award was made against the boss’s daughter and her friend who supported her at trial. The jury found that they were maliciously lying about Baxter and the Court of Appeal was not prepared to overturn it.
 
24 months’ pay in lieu of notice for a 17-year supervisor is unheard of and the maximum notice that anyone can get. The courts, however, don’t like to overturn jury awards unless they feel they must. The employer paid a hefty price here for conducting a completely deficient investigation which was downright unfair.
 
Lawsuits against individual employees for things they do in the workplace are extremely rare but this case shows that they can happen. If a judge or a jury is convinced that you maliciously made up a lie to get revenge on somebody and that lie caused them harm, you will have to pay.
 
As published in the Hamilton Spectator, March 4, 2013
 
Ed Canning
Ed Canning
P: 905.572.5809
ecanning@rossmcbride.com