The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that a Mission trucking company discriminated against a disabled employee when it fired her the same day she returned from medical leave for heart surgery.
T-Lane Transportation and Logistics will have to pay five months’ wages (with interest), along with $12,000 in damages for pain and suffering, and another $12,000 for its “willful and reckless conduct” towards former employee Karen Hugie, according to the Aug. 19th ruling.
“It is clear from the evidence that Ms. Hugie’s termination was premeditated,” the ruling says. “A vulnerable employee, facing major health issues, who had to take leave to have surgery and who, ultimately, was terminated by her employer as soon as she returned to work.”
T-Lane is a company based in Mission which moves goods around North America and internationally through five terminals across Canada.
Hugie was originally hired in 2015 as an operations consultant, but within the first weeks of her employment, she increasingly took on roles in the dispatch department, the ruling states.
She testified that she was soon doing the work of several full-time positions, as numerous dispatchers either left or were fired by the company, while still attempting to fulfill her consulting duties from home.
In the summer of 2016, Hugie suffered from an acute angina attack and was taken to hospital, where she was diagnosed with ischemic heart disease, hypertension and hypercholesterolemia.
Her condition required major surgery on her heart (a quadruple bypass) and left her drained of stamina and needing to inhale nitro several times a day to treat symptoms. She was advised to avoid stress.
According to the documents, Hugie discussed her condition with the company and notified them of her need to take 15 weeks off to recover from surgery in March 2017, which was authorized.
She suffered a second cardiac event at work shortly before her medical leave, again needing to be taken to hospital.
The company hired a woman to take over her duties just days before she went on leave, the timing of which was “significant,” the ruling said.
When she returned to work on June 12, 2017, the replacement was sitting at her desk. Hugie was moved to another desk with no phone, her access to the computer system had been restricted, and she had no work waiting for her.
Later that day, she was fired by the company’s owner, Tim Germain.
She said she had been apprehensive of meeting with Germain, as she had heard rumours that he was going to fire her when she returned from sick leave.
Germain had recently taken back control of the company’s day-to-day operations, and numerous witnesses testified to what the tribunal called a toxic “culture of fear” regarding his management style.
Evidence showed the company was running financial deficits at the time, and there was a high turnover rate. Some witnesses said that all employees were “walking on eggshells” and afraid of losing their jobs.
“Mr. Germain had a rather intimidating and disrespectful management style that made extensive use of reprimands,” the tribunal said, summarizing witness testimony.
“He made it clear that T-Lane was his company, that he could do whatever he wanted, and that if someone did not like it, they could ‘get lost,’ as he said, but using more vulgar words.”
One witness characterized Germain as a “bully” who treated his employees as “minions.” He said he’d once heard a co-worker being told by Germain that he could “hire two Indians at five dollars an hour to replace him.”
Germain testified that he was stressed during this period because of T-Lane’s financial situation.
After Hugie’s termination, she attended a farewell party for a former co-worker, a fact supported by documentary evidence.
She testified that a long-time employee told her Germain had planned to fire her the morning she returned, and others present confirmed they knew she would be fired before she went on sick leave.
She said she was also advised by this employee that she was not obliged to inform future employers about her medical condition.
“This event is important as it directly contradicts the case T-Lane has attempted to build in respect of Ms. Hugie’s termination,” the ruling said.
“The tribunal has no reason to question Ms. Hugie’s testimony on this aspect, which the respondent was unable to refute in any way.”
The company initially sought to argue there were issues with her work, but performance reports presented in court showed that Hugie was a valued employee.
Germain testified he had not planned to fire Hugie on June 12, and that he simply wanted to discuss options, such as moving her into another role. He said she broached the subject, which under his management style, meant she no longer wanted to work there.
The tribunal did not find his testimony convincing.
Hugie described the firing as one of the most difficult experiences in her life, and fought back tears during her testimony, having to take several breaks to compose herself.
“Her testimony on those subjects was emotional, heartfelt and very moving,” the tribunal found, ruling that she had to live in fear because of her disability.