In the recent Ontario case of Piresferreira v. Ayotte and Bell Mobility Inc.,1 the court awarded more than $500,000 to an employee who was abused by her supervisor. The employer, Bell Mobility, was also held to be vicariously liable for the supervisor’s actions.

The Facts

The employee, Marta Piresferreira (“Piresferreira”), had worked for Bell Mobility since 1996 as an account manager. In 1997, she came under the supervision of Richard Ayotte (“Ayotte”). From 1996 to 2003, Piresferreira received excellent performance reviews and was awarded with bonuses and trips. In 2004, Piresferreira encountered significant difficulties, missing a number of her financial objectives. All of these problems were a result of external factors beyond Piresferreira’s control, which she attempted to explain to Ayotte. According to Ayotte, he tried to make suggestions as to how Piresferreira could improve but she was not receptive.

Ayotte was an intimidating supervisor, and was prone to yelling, swearing and banging his fist on the table. By 2004, Piresferreira tried to avoid Ayotte as much as possible as he was regularly abusive and questioned her competence. On May 12, 2005, things came to a head.

Piresferreira was berated for having failed to successfully arrange a meeting. In front of another employee, Ayotte yelled and swore at her, stating she was not doing her job. Piresferreira apologized and left. That same day Piresferreira ran into Ayotte and he raised his voice to her again. He told her he was successful in arranging the meeting and asked her why she could not do the same. Piresferreira repeatedly attempted to show Ayotte an email on her blackberry as proof that she did everything she could to arrange the meeting. Ayotte was disinterested and pushed Piresferreira on her left shoulder, telling her to get away from him. She was pushed approximately a foot and had to balance herself against a filing cabinet.

Immediately following the incident, Ayotte threatened to issue a performance improvement plan (“PIP”) and did so shortly thereafter. Piresferreira reported the assault to her Human Resources representative. Ayotte received a minor disciplinary reproach. However, Ayotte and Bell Mobility moved immediately to impose the PIP, including an onerous schedule of frequent meetings with Ayotte. Piresferreira went on sick leave and then long-term disability due to the depression and anxiety that she experienced after these events. She never returned to work. She was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The court held that Ayotte’s action in pushing Piresferreira constituted assault and battery. The court also noted that she never received an apology from Ayotte nor Bell Mobility. Bell Mobility was held to be vicariously liable for everything that had occurred, the court finding as follows:

Bell Mobility set up a reporting arrangement whereby its information regarding the account managers’ work, Ayotte’s relationship with the account managers, and the environment at the Ottawa office, all came from Ayotte… In entrusting this level of control to Ayotte, Bell Mobility had to assume responsibility for how Ayotte managed the Ottawa office and dealt with the personnel there. The fact that Ayotte’s verbal abuse and physical assault of Piresferreira was an improper way for Ayotte to be managing, supervising or disciplining Piresferreira does not relieve Bell Mobility from vicarious liability for the assault and battery. Bell Mobility entrusted the supervisory role to Ayotte and is responsible when Ayotte did not handle that role properly.

Piresferreira was awarded damages for assault and battery, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, mental suffering, and psycho-traumatic disability in the amount of $45,000, loss of past and future income in the amount of $450,832, and special damages in the amount of $5,123. The court would have also awarded damages for constructive dismissal had she not recovered under her tort claims. However, awarding damages under both tort and contract claims would have amounted to double recovery.

The Court has clearly signalled that an employer may be held responsible for permitting an employee with an abusive management style to remain in a position of authority.