Firm sued for $1.5M as just-cause defence withdrawn

Rusonik O’Connor Robbins Ross Gorham & Angelini LLP is now facing an increased claim for $1.5 million in damages for wrongful dismissal after it withdrew a large part of its defence against a former employee who launched a high-profile lawsuit against it.

Tracy Francis sued the firm two years ago after it dismissed her for making disparaging comments in an e-mail. She said such e-mails were commonplace among partners at the firm.

Francis, who was seeking $85,000 in moral damages, has now raised the amount to $500,000, according to court documents filed last month. She’s also seeking $1 million in punitive damages.

In 2011, Francis launched a lawsuit alleging improper language and conduct at the firm, which has one of the largest criminal defence teams in the country. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

For its part, the firm accused Francis of calling one partner a “tyrant” and a “snivelling bitch” in an e-mail. But in a reply dated July 15, 2011, Francis said: “It was perfectly acceptable within the firm’s culture to make these types of comments using the firm’s e-mail system.” She attached a string of e-mails allegedly sent among employees at the firm to support her claim. The e-mails contained homophobic statements and other personal attacks.

The firm had also presented a just-cause defence accusing Francis of breaching confidentiality and spreading privileged information. But in a fresh statement of defence filed last month, the firm was no longer making those allegations.

Reid Rusonik, managing partner at the firm, declined to speak to Law Times about the decision to withdraw the just-cause defence. The withdrawal brings the firm’s defence down to just two pages from a 17-page document.

“I can’t tell you what brought this on but I can tell you that Ms. Francis feels vindicated that the defendant has now withdrawn the allegation of just cause and it’s no longer an issue,” says Francis’ counsel, Natalie MacDonald of Rudner MacDonald LLP. “However, the effects of the allegations of just cause which have been levelled at my client are still at issue and, of course, amongst them extraordinary damages,” she adds. “Therefore, we’re continuing to pursue this matter through the litigation system.”

According to an affidavit by lawyer Justin Tetreault, who worked with MacDonald on the case, “The proposed fresh as amended statement of defence fundamentally alters the defendant’s case, and reduces it to a notice period case.”

It adds: “After almost two years, the defendant is now seeking to remove its entire defence of just cause, including those very serious allegations relating to breach of confidentiality and inappropriate professional conduct, which the plaintiff has been forced to defend from the inception of this case.”

According to Francis’ revised statement of claim, she spent more than $40,000 defending the just-cause allegations. She’s asking the court to decline to grant the amended defence unless she gets compensation for her costs.

In the new defence, the firm said it wasn’t happy with Francis’ performance in the new role she took on in March 2010. The job required her to co-ordinate the firm’s articling students and appear for court set dates on occasion, the statement of defence notes.

The firm also said in its defence that “the termination of the plaintiff was conducted in a proper manner in accordance with accepted business standards” and that “the plaintiff has not suffered damages claimed or any damages and puts her into proof thereof.”

In her amended statement of claim, Francis said the defendant had failed to comply with its duty of good faith and fair dealing because there was no explanation at the time of her dismissal. She suggests it terminated her for “the same actions that the partners took, and participated in.”

Francis also claims that as a law firm, her employer knew or should have known that it had to provide her with a written letter upon her termination “instead of acting in a hostile manner and yelling at the plaintiff, while using profanity.”

In addition, she accuses the firm of assisting in the publication of “its false allegations, which it knew would harm the plaintiff’s reputation in the small legal community in which she worked.”

The media attention the case garnered was “distressful and hurtful” to Francis, the statement of claim asserts. She’s increasing her moral claim as a result of the withdrawal of the allegations, according to her lawyer.

For background, see "Lawsuit alleges abusive culture at T.O. firm."

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