The Vancouver Native Health Society has been ordered to pay a former employee two years’ salary and $30,000 in damages in a wrongful dismissal case.
The society operates the Phil Bouvier Family Centre in Strathcona where Horacio Valle Torres worked for almost 20 years before he was fired without cause or notice on June 1, 2018, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled this week.
The 56-year-old came to Canada from El Salvador in 1990. Valle Torres was first hired by Vancouver Native Health Society (VNHS) in February 1996 and worked in a program for sexually exploited young people until April 2004. He was laid off at that time because of funding cuts.
He was re-hired in early 2006 as the team leader for the Early Childhood Support program and was promoted to interim program manager after six months. Later in 2006 he was promoted again to project manager for the Phil Bouvier Centre overseeing Aboriginal early childhood programs, family support services, Aboriginal child development, the centre’s daycare and a family violence program.
“It was clear from the plaintiff’s testimony that he was exceptionally committed to the programs and was very proud of the work done at the centre,” Justice Catherine Murray said in her reasons for judgement.
Just two days before Valle Torres was fired, on May 30, 2018, the VNHS received notice from the Labour Relations Board that it had received an application from the BC Government Employees Union for certification for employees, including staff at the Phil Bouvier Centre. That evening, the society’s board of directors met and passed a resolution to close the daycare.
According to the court documents, then on the afternoon of Friday, June 1, 2018, VNHS executive director Lou Demerais and chief operations officer Robyn Vermette gave Valle Torres a letter stating he was terminated immediately without cause. It stated that the society had decided to restructure its programming, in particular the early childhood education program, and his services were no longer needed.
He was then escorted out of the building. Later that same day an email was sent out of the social services community in the Downtown Eastside advising that Valle Torres was no longer employed or associated with VNHS.
Valle Torres was given his final pay cheque as well as eight weeks pay in lieu of termination as per the Labour Standards Act and any outstanding vacation pay totaling more than $20,000. The society offered to pay Valle Torres an additional four weeks’ pay if he signed a release of any claims against it. He refused.
First thing Monday morning, Valle Torre’s replacement was introduced to staff.
“The plaintiff was emotional throughout much of his evidence,” Murray said in her written reasons for judgement. “It was clear that he was crushed by the way he was terminated. At one point in his evidence he became overcome with emotion was and unable to speak.”
Valle Torres told the court his dismissal in 2004 was “more human.” He was given ample notice and was able to plan ahead.
“He was left with hope that he could find work,” the judgement reads.
“In contrast the plaintiff said the 2018 firing was done with no notice or warning and the reason they have him was ‘not true,’” Murray said in her ruling. “He feels the defendant created the impression with his colleagues that he had done something seriously wrong by the way they escorted him out of the building and immediately circulated the email breaking ties with him… The plaintiff described how the firing felt as ‘they not only want to kill my spirit, they want to kill my integrity and my reputation.’”
Valle Torres testified that he considered Demerais a mentor, and the two were friends outside of work.
“The plaintiff described Mr. Demerais as a ‘great person with a great heart,’” Murray said. “He and his family shared special occasions with Mr. Demerais and his family.”
Valle Torres initially filed a grievance with the Labour Relations Board but testified that it was later withdrawn because he told the board he would not return to work at the centre because it was “too unsafe and too unhealthy” for him.
In its response to the grievance, the VNHS said Valle Torres’ termination had been for proper cause on the basis of poor performance, lack of ability and disloyalty.
Both Demerais and Vermette testified for the defence. Murray said she found their evidence troubling.
She said Demerais’ evidence “was filled with contradictions and inconsistencies. His memory was faulty and convenient. He gave his evidence in an almost off-handed manner and became quite defensive and antagonistic in cross-examination… Overall I found particularly Mr. Demerais’ but also Ms. Vermette’s evidence disingenuous and filled with animosity toward the plaintiff.”
At trial, contrary to what the LRB was told, Demerais testified that Valle Torres’ job performance was “fairly good” but he did not have the skills to take the program in a new direction.
Vermette initially testified that Valle Torres did not have the skills because he did not have the “lived experiences.”
“In cross-examination, Ms. Vermette stated that the plaintiff did not have the necessary skills as he was not an Indigenous residential school survivor,” Murray said. “She then said that his cultural background had nothing to do with his dismissal.”
The judge found that Valle Torres was wrongfully dismissed and is entitled to 24 months’ pay (he had a base annual salary of more than $79,000 at the time), plus more than $41,000 in vacation pay and two years’ worth of CPP and MSP premium contributions. The $12,220 severance and more than $10,000 in vacation pay Valle Torres already received will be deducted from that.
Murray also awarded $30,000 in aggravated damages for “unfair, dishonest and callous behaviour toward the plaintiff” for terminating him abruptly and without notice, and deceiving him about the true reason for the dismissal.
“It was only at trial that the plaintiff learned the true reason for his termination,” Murray said. “… Both Mr. Demerais and Ms. Vermette conceded in cross-examination that the plaintiff was actually terminated because he was not an Indigenous Canadian.”
VNHS has not yet responded to a request for comment.