November 10, 2015

BC Supreme Court decides wrongful dismissal case awarding Plaintiff substantial damages

The British Columbia Supreme Court awarded a 32 year old project consultant and account manager almost $94,000 in damages, after finding she was wrongfully dismissed.

Karena TeBaerts was employed for approximately 11 years by Penta Builders Group Inc. (“Penta”), a small, family run home building and real estate development company. Penta also employed Ms. TeBaerts’ brother and father and the President’s daughters and son-in-law. Ms. TeBaerts’ dismissal occurred after a series of events stemming from the difficult work-relationship between the son-in-law and Ms. TeBaerts and her brother. Although the son-in-law quit his employment, he was still closely tied to the family and associated companies.

Penta alleged it had just cause to terminate Ms. TeBaert’s employment based on her intentional deletion of work files from the server, her failure to be honest in her explanation for the deletions, and her assistance to her father, a project manager and the “second most important person” at Penta, to find other employment. The latter allegation arose after one of the President’s daughters accessed Ms. TeBaert’s work email and found an email exchange with her mother.

In her defence, Ms. TeBaert claimed the file deletions were a reasonable mistake, which she rectified, and that she was not dishonest in her explanation. She also claimed she had not assisted her father to look for other employment when she suggested to her mother that her father consider a recruiter. In addition to suing for wrongful dismissal, she sued for Penta’s breach of privacy when accessing her email.

The Court examined the evidence and emphasized the need for a contextual approach to determining whether just cause existed. The Court determined that just cause did not exist and that Ms. TeBaert’s dismissal was “significantly disproportionate to her conduct.” Although she did not advise Penta that one of the reasons for the file deletions was to frustrate the son-in-law’s attempts to use the files for his own home, her explanation for deleting the files was “incomplete”, not dishonest, according to the Court. It also found that Ms. TeBaert “did not come close” to breaching any duty preventing her from actively encouraging a valuable employee (her father) from leaving Penta. She was awarded 12 months reasonable notice.

Ms. TeBaert’s other claims for damages were dismissed. The Court concluded that Penta did not breach Ms. TeBaerts’ privacy by viewing her personal emails because her expectation of privacy was not reasonable. The Court reviewed a number of considerations in reaching that decision, including that Penta owned the workplace computer, had no policies regulating employees’ use of computers, including accessing one another’s computers, and that employees shared passwords lowering their expectation of privacy with respect to the workplace computers.

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