In this matter, the Ministry of International Relations was ordered to pay moral and punitive damages for having replaced a senior Quebec diplomat in a brutal and vexatious manner, particularly by denying him access to his official residence without notice.

The facts

During March 2008, the Ministry of International Relations proceeded to replace the Delegate General of Quebec in New York, Mr Bruno Fortier. According to the official version, he was criticised for having exceeded the terms of a guideline of the deputy minister by changing the responsibilities of an employee at a time that she had filed an informal complaint against him for sexual harassment. From one day to the next, the second highest senior diplomat of Quebec found himself on the street”, without remuneration, and forced to seek refuge in the homes of friends to satisfy his basic needs”.

This brutal replacement triggered a media storm, raised questions concerning the integrity of Mr Fortier and undermined his capacity to find comparable employment. Mr Fortier consequently filed a claim in damages alleging the abusive cancelation of his employment contract.

The trial judge concluded that, although it complied with the applicable decree, his replacement had been imposed in an unreasonable manner which justified an award of $5,000 in moral damages and $5,000 in punitive damages. Mr Fortier appealed this decision.

The appeal judgment

The Court of Appeal confirmed that by prohibiting access to the official residence to take possession of his personal property, the executives of the ministry acted with reckless disregard” and had violated the right to privacy and the dignity of Mr Fortier. In fact, the administrators could not have been unaware of the immediate and natural prejudicial consequences” of their decision, all the more so since they had initially failed to grant the severance indemnity provided for in the employment contract.

For the Court of Appeal, the modest amounts awarded at trial did not fully take into account the gravity of the faults committed based on the humiliation incurred by Mr Fortier and the serious depression which afflicted him following his replacement, as his moral prejudice is analogous to that of a victim of defamation. For these grounds, the Court awarded the sum of $50,000 in moral damages, $25,000 in punitive damages.

What lesson should be drawn from this decision? A dismissal may, based upon the circumstances and the manner in which it is carried out, take on an abusive and negligent character which justifies the award of damages. Thus, when assessing the terms of employment severance, employers should be aware of the risks associated with the various avenues possible and elect for an option that does not unduly harm the reputation of the employee or his future career.

Reference: Fortier v. Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 QCCA 1426