Human Rights in the Corporate Setting

August 31st, 2012 by

A recent article by Siobahn McClelland (Click here) discussed an interesting Divisional Court decision, Ontario Human Rights Commission v Farris (Click here for the decision). The Divisional Court decision set aside a Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario decision and in doing so has made what one would hope will be an important step towards vindicating human rights in the corporate setting. Katherine Farris found herself terminated without cause from her employment with the corporation Saubuch Ontario Inc. in 2003. This occurred after she brought her concerns about her work environment to her managers, Harry McKeague and Michel Leonard, who were also the principals and shareholders of the corporation. Her concerns arose when she learned that there were rumours circulating at her workplace that she was having an affair with McKeague. The Tribunal found these rumours to be directly related to Farris’ gender.  Further, it was found by the Tribunal that the employees at Farris’ workplace were calling her names that were based on her sex such as “bitch” and “psycho”.

When Farris spoke with McKeague and Leonard about this issue, they refused to take adequate steps to address it. As such, the Tribunal found that the corporation, Staubuch Ontario Inc., was liable for engaging in sexual discrimination and creating a poisoned work environment and awarded Farris $30,000.

While this outcome may seem positive, there was one important issue: By the time the decision was made, the corporation was no longer operating. Further, the Tribunal refused to award joint-and-several liability against McKeague and Leonard, even though they were found to be individually liable by the Tribunal. As such, it would have been nearly impossible for Farris to receive the compensation awarded to her.

Fortunately, the Divisional Court set aside the Tribunal’s decision and held McKeague and Leonard liable for compensation and sent the case back to the Tribunal to apportion liability. The Divisional Court emphasized that it was a finding of the Tribunal that McKeague and Leonard failed to recognize that there was a poisoned work environment. This in itself was a violation of s. 5(1) of the Human Rights Corde. Further, they chose to terminate Farris rather than deal with the poisoned environment.

This decision could be an important step in the right direction of protecting human rights, by possibly ensuring in the words of Barbara Hall, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission that, “corporate liability not act as a shield against individual liability.” Further, it opens up the possibility of ensuring that in the appropriate circumstances, those who have faced human rights violations are adequately compensated by the managers, principals and owners of corporations, especially when compensation would otherwise be nearly impossible.

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