Martha Piresferreira received a years worth of her wages plus $60,000 in damages after a physical confrontation with her supervisor resulted in emotional distress and psychological trauma.
Piresferreira worked for Bell for 10 years and was supervised by Richard Ayotte. Ayotte was described as a critical, demanding, loud and aggressive supervisor, while Piresferreira was described as nervous and sensitive.
When Piresferreira failed to book a meeting with a major client, Ayotte confronted her. She tried to show him evidence of her attempts on her blackberry, but Ayotte told her to get away from him, and pushed her hard enough that she hit a filing cabinet. She followed him to his office telling him his actions were inappropriate, only to be told to “get the hell out of the office” and that she would be put on probation or issued a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”).
Piresferreira returned to work a few days later and was immediately presented with a PIP that Ayotte had prepared in her absence. Ayotte told Bell’s human resources department that he needed a PIP quickly, but did not mention the altercation. It was a requirement of the PIP that she report to him daily, or face discipline up to and including termination. Piresferreira refused to sign the PIP, went home, and complained to human resources.
Instead of investigating the merits of her complaint, human resources told Piresferreira that she needed to attend a meeting to talk about her PIP. When she responded that she would be unable to attend because she was on sick leave, human resources sent her a letter indicating that their investigation was complete, and the matter was closed. In total, Bell spoke to Ayotte, who admitted pushing her, but insisted he was provoked. At the conclusion of the investigation Bell asked Ayotte to formally apologize to Piresferreira in a meeting, told him to attend two anger management courses, and indicated that a disciplinary letter would be placed in his file.
During the months that followed, Piresferreira was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and anxiety. Bell asked Piresferreira to return to work a number of times; but, each time she refused, until eventually Bell took the position that she had resigned.
The Court of Appeal upheld the trial level decision that Piresferreira was entitled to a year’s worth of wages as she was unable to work, awarded her $15,000 as a result of the shove, plus $45,000 for the mental suffering related to the way her employment was terminated.
Employers have an obligation to ensure that employees have a reasonably safe work environment free of harassment and assault. After Piresferreira reported the incident, Bell failed to take appropriate measures to investigate the matter, to enforce the penalty it imposed on Ayotte, and at no time spoke to Piresferreira for her side of the story.
In the absence of any disciplinary measures imposed on Ayotte, and without any consultation with Piresferreira, she had no way of knowing if she returned to work that she would be ensured a reasonably safe work environment. For these and other reasons, the Court of Appeal upheld the trial level decision stating she had been constructively dismissed and was entitled to damages.