- by Anne Finlay-Stewart, Editor

A Grey County municipality has been dealt an expensive lesson in the cost of rumours, sexism and discrimination in 2021.

In the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Justice R. Chown ruled  on a case against the Township of Southgate and its CAO, David Milliner, brought by a dismissed employee, Melanie McGraw.  Justice Chown summarized his judgement this way: "The plaintiff was fired from her employment based on unfounded, sexist allegations and gender-based discrimination."

The judge said Mr. Milliner "came to incorrect conclusions because he relied so extensively on inaccurate and dated second-hand information."  The municipal council was held responsible because its members had accepted the rumours presented by its CAO in a closed meeting, even the one Milliner admitted in court he had essentially "made up", and unanimously approved Ms. McGraw's termination.

While municipal council members may mistakenly believe that their conversations in such closed sessions are forever sealed from public scrutiny, the court agreed that a municipality can be compelled to release those deliberations, except attorney-client discussions, in a trial.

In the reasons for his decision, Justice Chown characterized the defence as follows: "We fired her because she was the object of rumours that we believed were true. We could not prove they were true, so we fired her on a without cause basis and paid severance."

He continues: "For the most part, the allegations against Ms. McGraw were fantastical. They were made in a male-dominated environment. The defendants ought to have been highly suspicious that the allegations were based on discrimination. The failure of the defendants to support Ms. McGraw against discrimination was a significant, distressing failure."

"The defendants’ discriminatory conduct was reprehensible and was a serious departure from ordinary standards of decent behaviour for a municipality and its CAO. The behaviour calls to mind a different era. It has long been recognized that this type of behaviour has no place in the workplace. Male dominated workplaces, in particular, must be mindful to avoid gender-based discrimination. The fact that Ms. McGraw was in a position of authority and therefore a potential target for sexist behaviour and rumours was lost on the defendants."

In all the judge awarded damages of six months compensation for failure to provide reasonable notice, moral damages, and damages under the Ontario Human Rights Code. 

“Every person has a right to equal treatment with  respect to employment without discrimination because of … sex,” and “Every  person who is an employee has a right to freedom from harassment in the  workplace by the employer or agent of the employer or by another employee  because of … sex".  Justice Chown cites the reasoning of Justice Epstein in another OHRC case,  that "general damages must not be set “too low, since doing so would  trivialize the social importance of the [Code] by effectively creating a ‘licence fee’ to discriminate”:

Damages for defamation were also awarded "primarily to compensate the plaintiff for the harm caused to her reputation, and secondarily for any hurt or injured feelings the publication may have caused", along with punitive damages.

Ms. McGraw was an administrative assistant and a volunteer fire captain with the Dundalk Fire Department at the time of her dismissal in 2019, and was proud of being one of the female instructors at the fire college. 

source: reasons for decision of Chown J - McGraw v Southgate - CV-19-30 - 20-OCT-2021