Former Via Rail chairman Jean Pelletier is one of the latest government bureaucrats to win substantial wrongful dismissal damages from the federal government. Pelletier’s award included $678,000 in outstanding salary and benefits and $100,000 for damage to reputation. Once the court subtracted mitigation earnings, the damages award still stood at $335,000.
Pelletier had been fired from the same position twice by the federal Liberal government. He had made some inappropriate public comment about Miriam Bedard, a former Olympic gold medallist, Via Rail employee, single mother and noted whistle-blower who still had a positive public persona. By targeting Bedard, Pelletier had unwisely disparaged a media darling. It was politically fortuitous for the federal government to be seen to support Bedard. The government capitalized on this opportunity by firing Pelletier in 2004 for what it claimed was just cause. Pelletier was fired within days of making the Bedard statements. There was no warning of the dismissal or any opportunity for Pelletier to address the criticism that led to his dismissal.
Pelletier had been appointed to his position by cabinet order in 2001 for a five-year fixed term, subject to just cause. As such, he was an “office-holder” and was owed certain procedural fairness in the dismissal process. He did not receive that procedural fairness. Because his employment was regulated by federal statute, he could protest his dismissal in the federal court system, which he did successfully. The court quashed the dismissal, and Pelletier was reinstated in 2005.
However, relying on the time-worn adage that if at first you don’t succeed try, try again, the government under Paul Martin decided to have another go.
This time Pelletier’s case was given the appearance of procedural fairness. He was asked to explain his actions in the Bedard matter. He was then fired, for the second time, months after being reinstated.
Pelletier again protested his dismissal in the federal court system. Again he won. Again the federal court quashed his dismissal and ordered him reinstated. Because the government is appealing the court’s latest decision, it had refused to pay Pelletier since the initial dismissal in 2004.
Pelletier sued the government for breach of contract in civil court in Quebec, which is similar to B.C.’s Supreme Court. The objective of the wrongful dismissal claim was to get the money, not statutory relief such as the reinstatement.
The Quebec court found in Pelletier’s favour.
Pelletier had claimed damages of $3.3 million, but the Quebec court awarded him only $100,000 for damage to his reputation.
The Pelletier case is interesting for a couple of reasons.
First, it appears this employee was targeted for political reasons and fired in a highly public way, yet the government escaped the non-tangible and punitive damages claims.
Second, Pelletier successfully sued in federal court twice for his statutory rights. This set him up to make the civil claim for the money that the government refused to pay that should have flowed from the two reinstatements.
So Pelletier won, but did he really win?
His legal fees for three court trials must have been considerable, probably roughly equal to the amount he won.
Vindication sometimes carries a heavy price.