February 21, 2014
The Employee worked for the Employer as a production supervisor in the body shop of General Motor’s Oshawa plant for approximately eight years. The Employee, a black man, was scheduled to train another worker, but the trainee did not attend the training session. The Employee took the position, based on information he received from others in the workplace, that the trainee’s failure to attend the training was racially motivated (the “Incident”). The Employer ultimately commenced three internal investigations into the Employee’s complaint of racism. The Employee was dissatisfied with the outcome of the third investigation. He then took a two year medical leave arising from what he believed was discriminatory treatment arising from the Incident and the subsequent investigations.
After two years on medical leave, the Employer’s physician determined that the Employee was fit to return to work. The Employer offered an accommodation for the Employee to work in similar supervisory roles in a different building than the body shop. The Employee refused the accommodation. The Employer then took the position that the Employee resigned. In response, the Employee brought a claim for constructive dismissal alleging that his work environment was poisoned.
At trial, the lower Court awarded $160,000.00 in damages to the Employee making findings of fact that the trainee’s failure to attend the training session was “solely racially-based”. On the basis of this one Incident, the Court found the Employee was wrongfully dismissed because the Employer created a poisoned work environment which made it intolerable for the Employee to continue employment.
The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal holding that there was no evidence to support that the Incident was racially motivated, nor was there any objective evidence to establish that a poisoned work environment actually existed. The Court of Appeal concluded that the trial judge made palpable and overriding errors when finding that racism was the sole basis concerning the Incident.
In issuing this decision, the Court of Appeal confirmed that the Employee had the onus to prove that there was objective evidence to support a conclusion that the alleged poisoned work environment was caused by “persistent and repeated” incidents that made his continued employment intolerable. The Employee’s subjective feelings or “genuinely-held beliefs are insufficient.” Further, “stand alone incidents” of racism are generally not sufficient to create a poisoned work environment unless the behaviour is sufficient to establish a hostile/intolerable work setting which results in the essential terms of the employment contract being substantially changed.
In summary, the Court of Appeal concluded that a single trainee’s failure to attend a training session fell well short of the type of misconduct required to establish a poisoned work environment and a constructive dismissal.
Employees should carefully canvass with their lawyer whether they have sufficient evidence to demonstrate persistent and repeated incidents of offensive conduct in order to establish a poisoned work environment before taking the position that they have been constructively dismissed.
General Motors of Canada Limited v. Johnson, 2013 ONCA 502