A case involving termination following an investigation.
One of the most challenging issues in dealing with harassment and discrimination investigations can be determining the distinction between a complaint filed in good faith, yet ultimately unsupported by the evidence and a case filed in bad faith, (or maliciously), with the intent to mislead and to cause damage to a respondent and the organization. I have researched a case that presents some compelling considerations.
The case1 comes from the healthcare field in Alberta and involves the termination of an employee following an investigation into a complaint she filed. The investigation was conducted by an external investigator and the findings were that the complaints were baseless in their entirety and without merit and that the complainant deliberately exaggerated her concerns.
Acting on the investigator’s recommendation, the employer terminated the employee. They concluded that the complainant brought forward groundless allegations, and actively encouraging others to do likewise, and thereby breached the trust relationship with the employer. The union filed a grievance and an arbitration occurred.
The union contended there was no just cause for discipline with regard to the grievor’s conduct. It argues the grievor did not act in bad faith; rather, she believed she was being treated unfairly and inappropriately, and her beliefs were a matter of perception, not bad faith.
The arbitration panel (the panel) stated the decision came down to an assessment as to whether the grievor made complaints against her manager in bad faith and without reasonable grounds.
In assessing credibility, the investigator and the panel referred to the seminal case of Faryna v. Chorny2, which is now over 65 years old, but is still cited as the standard for assessing credibility. If you have time, head over to that case at page 356-57 to read the full text.
The investigator had laid out several factors that influenced her decision related to credibility and ultimately the panel accepted her assessments. They are (summarized): 1. inconsistencies of the complainant’s statements with those of other employees interviewed, 2. expansion of the complaint essence to include allegations of physical threat where none existed previously, 3. internal inconsistencies with the complainant’s information, 4. exaggerated and inflated descriptions of the respondent’s conduct, 5. failure to distinguish between hearing something or thinking something and an actual event, 6. evidence that the complainant had made comments that she hated the respondent, 7. a number of statements that were contradicted by others.
While the union argued that the grievor’s allegations were based on her honestly held perceptions, the panel disagreed and stated the following rationale: “Perception must be reasonable and must be based on the truth. To do otherwise would absolve inappropriate conduct merely because a person states they firmly believe their perceptions to be accurate. For instance, a completely innocent action by someone, wrongly perceived by another as inappropriate, could result in very serious consequences for the innocent party without recourse to the person who wrongly perceived the action as inappropriate; a sideways glance may be perceived as sexual abuse; a misheard statement could be perceived as harassment or abuse. Clearly, perception must be based on the truth and whether someone is telling the truth requires an assessment of credibility when actions, statements, and perceptions are at variance.”
In the end, the panel was satisfied the grievor went beyond making unsubstantiated or unfounded claims. Rather, they felt, the grievor exaggerated and embellished her claims to such an extent that her claims “…are without reason and reckless; we find her claims, and perceptions, lack credibility. For the following reasons, we reject her evidence when in dispute with others. First, we accept and adopt the factual findings and credibility conclusions of the Investigator. Second, we find the Grievor expanded her stories well beyond merely filling in the gaps…Lastly, the plausibility of the Grievor’s perception of events is unreasonable and unsupportable. There must be rationality on a reasonableness standard and her perception does not meet that standard.”
The panel pointed out specific concerns with the grievor’s description of a meeting, which changed quite dramatically when she was interviewed by the investigator. In the first telling, she claimed the respondent yelled at her and was looking at her with hatred in his face and she, “put her hands up.” In the investigator’s notes and then again in her report, it says she put her hands up “and said that she was only suggesting, was not disrespecting him, and was just giving her opinion because she has worked in other hospitals where she has seen proper training and what is acceptable.”
The panel stated, “As we find above, her description of raising her hands in this context suggests it was an attempt to get a word in edge-wise because (the respondent) was speaking quite quickly and was not giving her an opportunity to speak.”
The panel stated, “Before us, she again changed her story. This time, not only was (the respondent) yelling and obviously angry, she was very concerned he was going to, or could, hit her. She clarified that she put up her hands to ward off potential blows that she believed could be coming from (the respondent).”
The panel was “…satisfied the Grievor lacks credibility and she deliberately embellished and exaggerated her allegations for the purpose of causing harm to the Manager.”
The panel turned to a question I find to be central to any attempt to conclude on a credibility assessment; the difference between an honestly held opinion and a complaint made in bad faith. They stated, “…a distinction must be drawn between a complaint that is not substantiated and one that is made in bad faith. Bad faith requires an improper motive…We specifically have found the Grievor exaggerated and embellished with the intent of causing harm to her manager. She acted in bad faith in doing so.”
The termination was upheld and the grievance was dismissed.
What do you think about this case? Have you had cases that are similar and that required you to navigate these issues? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the case!
1. HSAA and Capital Care Group Inc., Re 2018 CarswellAlta 2575,  A.W.L.D. 530,  A.W.L.D. 531, 138 C.L.A.S. 88.
2. Faryna v. Chorny (1951),  2 D.L.R. 354 (B.C. C.A.)