A justice of the peace accused of making inappropriate or sexually harassing comments to court staff says they formed a false image of him based on a misinterpretation of his “friendly and jovial” manner.
Six female staff members at the Oshawa, Ont., courthouse where Justice of the Peace Errol Massiah is based say they were uncomfortable around him and allege he commented on their looks, made sexually suggestive remarks, and eyed them up and down.
One also alleges he slapped her on the buttocks.
But 55-year-old Massiah, who was appointed to the central east region of the Ontario Court of Justice in 2007, denies ever touching anyone and says people misheard or misinterpreted his comments.
“At best, it’s a misinterpretation of my actions. . . . They constructed this image of me and who I am and basically chose to continue to interact with me in this way,” Massiah told a hearing panel of the Justices of the Peace Review Council. “My manner is to extend a greeting, be kind, and pleasant. I never will engage in touching without consent.”
During his testimony, Massiah made note of the effects the allegations have had on him. “I do not choose to comment on motives, but they spoke to each other and it became a group mindset,” Massiah said, noting the whole experience has been “sad, distressing, and humiliating” for him.
Massiah said he’d attend potlucks and Christmas parties at the courthouse and adopted an informal style outside court in an attempt to “connect” with court staff and avoid being seen as a “stiff shirt.”
From time to time, he said he’d compliment people on their appearance and frequently greeted female staff with “Hey, girl.”
“Part of my personal style is to promote goodwill and continue the team-building effort,” Massiah told the panel. “I never received any kind of feedback that it was unappreciated.”
Between Sept. 28 and Sept. 30, the panel, which includes Ontario Court Justice Charles Vaillancourt, Justice of the Peace Louise Rozon, and community member Michael Phillips, heard evidence in the case in a converted meeting room in a downtown Toronto tower block at 390 Bay St.
If the panel upholds the complaints, Massiah could face punishment ranging from a warning or a reprimand all the way up to a recommendation to remove him from office. The panel may also force him to apologize or suspend him without pay for up to 30 days.
Guyana-born Massiah moved to Canada with his family in his teens and was a Liberal party organizer and researcher who worked as an aide in former premier David Peterson’s government during the 1980s.
After a career in Ontario’s public service, he started a consulting business and won contracts with the Ontario and Canadian human rights commissions to do work that included investigations and mediations for workplace discrimination matters.
He also ran unsuccessfully for a local council seat in Ajax, Ont., before his appointment as a justice of the peace.
Although the alleged incidents occurred between 2008 and 2010, the complainants only came forward after an investigation by management into one of the later allegations.
Massiah, meanwhile, said he never got any warning from the complainants that his conduct was unwelcome. “At the very basic level, you tell the individual that you’re not happy, uncomfortable or distressed and seek clarification on what you think you heard,” he said, adding that both court staff and the judiciary would benefit from training on how to interact with one another.
Most of the women said they failed to act earlier because they feared they wouldn’t be taken seriously. “I didn’t want to start the ball rolling. I didn’t want to be the only one,” said one complainant at the hearing.
“He was a superior. It didn’t feel like it was my place to call him out like that,” said another complainant.
Douglas Hunt, the senior partner at Hunt Partners LLP and presenting counsel to the panel, suggested Massiah’s experience in harassment investigations should have signaled that he was on shaky ground commenting on the appearance of women in a situation where a potential imbalance of power existed.
“You surely recognize as an authority figure that those around you may not feel equal,” Hunt said.
But Massiah insisted that everyone was equal in his courtroom. “I do not see myself in a power position,” he said.
“I see it as a team effort. I’m not their boss, and they’re not subservient to me. We’re part of a team dispensing justice.”
A hearing panel order protected all of the complainants’ identities. One of them, referred to in documents as A.A., recounted an incident in July 2010 in Massiah’s chambers in which she alleged the justice of the peace asked her to sit down, rolled his chair over to her, and told her she had “beautiful eyes and I want to gaze into them.”
When she got up to leave, the woman said he told her not to run away and asked whether her eyes “changed colour with the weather.”
Later in the day, she said Massiah told her, “I take it you don’t like compliments, you just like abuse.”
On an earlier occasion, she said she apologized after entering Massiah’s office when he was buttoning or unbuttoning his shirt. In response, he allegedly told her, “Any time you want to see me with my shirt off, just let me know.”
“I thought it was strange and uncomfortable,” the woman told the panel.
While Massiah said he had commented on her eyes, he argued the remark was merely an attempt to lift her spirits because he thought she seemed dejected. “The intent was to elicit a smile and get her to react in a positive way,” he said.
Massiah denied making the comment about abuse. In terms of the remark about the shirt, he said the woman had probably misunderstood a comment directed at another justice of the peace in the room about his athletic physique. “There may have been banter between he and I as to my muscles,” Massiah told the panel. “He made some comment about me still having muscles.”
The panel also heard from C.C., who said Massiah made a joke in November 2009 after finding out she was 13 weeks’ pregnant. According to the woman, he nudged her and said, “I know what you were doing 13 weeks ago.”
Duncan Read, another justice of the peace who was present at the time, told the panel he thought the joke was inappropriate and tried to change the subject of the conversation.
“Rather than saying something strident one way or another, I decided to steer the conversation away,” Read told the panel. “I thought it was important to talk to him about it some time later, but it got lost in the course of work.”
According to Massiah, he was simply offering the woman his congratulations and joked about her being a “busy girl” in reference to her wedding and then her pregnancy.
C.C. also alleged that on another occasion in 2010, Massiah had slapped her buttocks while she was leaning over a cubicle to speak to a colleague.
While she acknowledged that a pillar and garbage can were in the vicinity and that the touch could have been accidental, she said that “if I bumped into someone, I would apologize.”
Massiah denied touching the woman. His lawyer, Eugene Bhattacharya, pointed out that if Massiah had brushed her with papers he was carrying, he might have never realized it.
Another woman, D.D., testified that when she once knocked on Massiah’s door to check if he was decent, he replied: “It’s not like you haven’t seen anything like that before. Mine is just brown.”
But according to Massiah, all he said was, “I’m almost done.”
Complainant F.F. testified that when Massiah once asked her what court clerks wear under their gowns, he went on to comment that he could “picture clerks not wearing anything under their gowns.”
In another incident, she alleged that when she told Massiah she’d prefer to wear something more comfortable, such as sweatpants or a T-shirt, he told her, “I can picture you changing.”
He then allegedly paused while he appeared to picture her changing and then said he was ready to enter the court.
Massiah, however, denied the claim. He said he was in fact talking about the court’s dress code and had commented that he “could not picture that changing.”
Massiah has been assigned as a non-presiding justice of the peace since August 2010. The hearing resumes on Nov. 9.