A tale of two offices
Judges rely on the people in the courtroom to tell the truth or least something slightly resembling the truth. When all of the parties fail in that challenge, judges have to figure out where in the middle the truth lies. Dorothy worked as a receptionist in a dental office for two surgeon brothers for seven and a half years. The office was run by their mother. According to Dorothy there was no set schedule and she showed up whenever she felt like it. Over the years she was constantly threatened with termination for minor misdemeanors. She said that one day one of the dentists treated an Aboriginal man and left him bleeding only to comment after, “He’s an Indian, they don’t deserve teeth.” Another day one of the dentists grabbed a young Aboriginal girl in an aggressive manner and told her to shut up.
After seven and a half years, she went to speak to one of the dentists and she dropped some papers. As she bent over to pick them up he said, “While you’re down there…” Later that day she was handed a handwritten note indicating she was terminated with cause and she should call their lawyer. She tried but he never answered. Before she left, she said everyone gave her a hug goodbye.
The judge said, “In summary, Dorothy painted a picture of a dysfunctional business office run by two racist, paranoid and perverted dentists, and their mother.” The judge noted that Dorothy was a wreck in the witness box, “She presented as scattered, frazzled and totally unfocused.”
Of course when the dentists took the stand their story was different.
When an installation person showed up to install cameras in the office, Dorothy was very upset and kept complaining to him about the cameras. So much so he left and came back to finish the job when she was not there.
Over time, the cameras kept being moved and the direction of view changed. Finally Dorothy’s face was recorded five inches from the camera as she climbed up on something to turn it. Although the employer claimed this was the final straw, the employer learned this a month before her termination.
Dorothy was hired for janitorial duties, chairside assistance for the dentist and as a receptionist. She was only decent as a receptionist. Dorothy reported her own hours and they were convinced she was bilking them by exaggerating her hours. Of course since there was no record keeping but hers they could not prove it.
Dorothy had been late at least 50 times in the last year and a half of employment. The dentists denied the racist comments, behaviours, and the sexually suggestive statement on the date of her termination.
They did not hug Dorothy when they fired her as they were not “huggers”.
What is a judge to do?
He decided both sides exaggerated their evidence at trial. He indicated, “I do not believe for a moment that the dentists are the racist psychopaths they have been portrayed as. If they were, Dorothy, notwithstanding her income insecurity problems, would have blown the whistle long ago.”
“On the other side of the coin, I do not believe for a moment that Dorothy was a terrible employee, essentially a useless, insubordinate fraudster who sucked the air out of the building for years as described by the dentists.”
If Dorothy had been anywhere close to that bad she would never have lasted seven and a half years.
At the end of the day what was clear to the judge was that whatever faults Dorothy had as an employee she had not been given any kind of warning that anything she was doing or not doing was endangering her continued employment. There was not just cause. She was awarded eight months’ lost pay and the costs of the trial. Ironically, the judge awarded over a month per year of service for a receptionist position even though he thought she lied to him.
Ed Canning practices labour and employment law with Ross & McBride LLP, in Hamilton, representing both employers and employees. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ed Canning writes a bi-weekly Employment Law column in the Hamilton Spectator. To read more articles CLICK HERE.