Peter Merrifield commenced his service with the RCMP in 1998 and in June of 2007 commenced a civil action against the force, claiming damages for, among other things, the tort of harassment. On February 28, 2017, Madam Justice Vallée issued a 174 page judgment, finding in favour of Mr. Merrifield and awarding him damages in the amount of $141,000 for the harassment to which he was subjected and the consequent emotional distress he suffered.
While pages could be written (and were in the decision) about the specific harassment that Mr. Merrifield suffered, what struck me most about the decision was the RCMP’s repeated reluctance to take Mr. Merrifield’s claims of harassment seriously. On three separate occasions, he wrote extensive and detailed communications to senior officers, ultimately taking his concerns to the highest level within the RCMP. Despite his efforts in this regard, no meaningful investigation of his claims was ever done, and the result is another damning indictment of harassment within the ranks.
To illustrate, despite Mr. Merrifield having attempted to bring his issues to the attention of senior officers previously, on August 15, 2006, he wrote a lengthy email to Division C.O. Seguin to reference the unfair treatment he was receiving. The email made reference to the fact that the harassing and abusive behaviour to which Mr. Merrifield had been subjected had effectively destroyed his reputation and career. Mr. Merrifield requested that an attempt be made to clearly communicate with him to “review and resolve the outstanding issues”, and he noted specifically, “I am certain that if you were presented with all of the facts from day one you would form a much different opinion than you currently hold of the situation.”
C.O. Seguin did meet with Mr. Merrifield on October 3, 2006, he read the emails that Mr. Merrifield showed him and saw nothing wrong with them, but declined to read the witness statements provided by Mr. Merrifield and did not attempt to follow-up with or speak with the witnesses. C.O. Seguin testified at trial that, when he met with Mr. Merrifield, he already had management’s perspective regarding everything that Mr. Merrifield told him, and did not perceive at that point that there was harassment.
On May 11, 2007, Mr. Merrifield wrote to the Deputy Commissioner for the Region to request his assistance with these issues. Mr. Merrifield described the fact that the two years following his involvement as a candidate in a Federal election were “filled with repeated and ongoing harassment,” noted that he had written to senior officers regarding his concerns, offered evidence and “a willingness to resolve this matter,” but that these efforts had yielded no results and left him few options other than to file formal legal proceedings. Despite requesting that the Deputy Commissioner intervene, he received a reply to his email on June 29, 2007 stating that the Deputy Commissioner had “thoroughly reviewed the materials and concluded that your complaints and grievances have been handled appropriately by the C.O. “O” Division. As such it would not be appropriate for me to intervene at this time.”
Mr. Merrifield tried one final time in a further email dated January 5, 2012, sent to Commissioner Bob Paulson and several others. This email began with reference to the nearly seven years that he had spent, “engaged in an effort to address unwanted harassment, bullying, abuse of authority and process.” He talked about the negative health effects of this conduct, including “serious depression” and “surgery for a stress related heart ailment.” Referencing his extensive and exemplary service record, he noted that he was deemed credible and believable for professional reasons, and asked, “Why is it that when I claim that certain Officers bullied me, harassed me and lied I am no longer believable?” Mr. Merrifield wrote that he had “exhausted every reasonable method to appeal to the common sense of the RCMP to review the evidence in the matter, but to date there has been no in depth review of the [sic] my claims or evidence”, and despite again outlining in writing his detailed allegations of harassment, he received no response to his email.
Commissioner Paulson testified at trial that he found the “depth and breadth of the information in the e-mail unusual and concerning” and he forwarded it to the Assistant Commissioner and a human resources office and expected that it would be addressed. As the decision shows, it clearly was not. In fact, as Madame Justice Vallée held specifically, “I find that the RCMP’s conduct in ignoring this email went beyond all standards of what is right and decent. I find that it was one of the actual and proximate causes of Mr. Merrifield’s severe emotional distress.”
We know from the cases we see in our office that when employees come forward with these types of concerns, it can be overwhelming for the person at the organization who receives them. They may have no idea what steps to take in order to look into or “investigate” the concerns, or they may not have a clear understanding of what constitutes harassment. Even worse, they may already have some preconceived view of the legitimacy of the concerns based on prior knowledge of the people involved. This is exactly when the alarm bells should be ringing. It is not that every such case requires a third party investigation, but careful and objective consideration should be given to the information that is received. Ask yourself the “threshold question”: if I assume this to be true, what would this mean for our organization? If this would represent a violation of an applicable policy or a law, then an investigation of some kind is warranted. And, if you are not sure, ask someone, like in-house counsel or an external legal expert. As the Merrifield decision reminds us, dismissing the opportunity to investigate early, no matter how daunting it may seem, might mean short-term gain, but long-term pain.
About the Author: Toronto Employment Lawyer Christine Thomlinson is a co-founder and co-managing partner of Rubin Thomlinson LLP. Appearing regularly on Best Lawyers and Leading Practioners lists in Canada, Christine is known for her high capability to think strategically, and her ability to find practical, often innovative, legal solutions to her clients’ challenging workplace issues.