Popping the cork: Tension leads to without cause dismissal for long-serving B.C. liquor worker

The inside of a liquor store with bottles of wine. Photo: Adrien Olichon/Pexels

Not every wine ages well. So too is the case for employment relationships, as a long-serving worker at a private liquor store in British Columbia recently discovered.

The worker, with 35 years under her belt, was terminated without cause after a relationship with a colleague soured and created a tense working environment. It reached a point where the owner felt he had no choice but to let her go,

A court awarded her 17 months’ notice, after deductions for failure to mitigate, and shot down her claims for aggravated and punitive damages.

The backround

Gai Cadrin started working as a clerk at the Jolly Miller Pub and Liquor Store in Chilliwack, B.C. , in 1987. In 1989, the operations were bough by Parmbaksh Singh Dhaliwal and over the years it expanded in size.

It currently has about 48 employees, with 11 of them working in the retail liquor store.

Cadrin worked for 35 years in the liquor store. Around 1990, she was promoted to manager and her duties included selecting new products, receiving shipments and handling transactions.

As of March 2022, her hours of work were 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday. She was paid $23 per hour for eight hours, and $34.50 for each of the two hours of overtime. She had no written employment contract.

Cadrin was friends with Dhaliwal, and their spouses also became friends. Dhaliwal was the godfather of her daughter and, starting in 2013, he paid for flights to Mexico for Cadrin and her husband. Cadrin described the trips as appreciation for her hard work at the store, and there were trips every year from 2013 to 2020. (COVID put an end to the trips.)

Store orders with LDB

Heather Peterson also worked as a clerk at the Jolly Miller. She started in 1995, but left from 2001 to 2005. When she returned in 2006, she began handling the weekly order placed to the BC Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB).

In 2020, Cadrin asked if she could take over the LDB order. Dhaliwal agreed, but said it was a temporary move and the role would be split between her and Peterson once she learned how to do it.

In June 2021, Dhaliwal gave the LDB job back to Peterson and promoted her to co-manager. It was a retention move on his part, as Peterson was considering leaving for a job at another liquor store.

Cadrin was not happy about this development, and he said she swore at him when he told her. Shortly after, there was an incident between the two co-managers.

Dhaliwal asked Peterson to arrive at work an hour early because a service worker was coming in. Cadrin had a medical appointment the day before, and it was unclear whether she would be able to go into work the next morning.

Cadrin was there at 7 a.m. when Peterson arrived, and was upset to see her — she called Peterson a backstabber, among other names. Dhaliwal called a meeting between the three of them to sort things out. Cadrin apologized to Peterson and he confirmed how their duties would be divided — moving forward, they would only report to him.

While there were no further incidents, there was a lot of tension.

Sick leave

The tension began to take its toll on Cadrin. Her husband, who considered Dhaliwal a family friend, approached him — without his wife’s knowledge — to try and mediate a solution. The issue was not resolved.

In February 2022, Cadrin was prescribed anti-depressants and advised by her doctor to take time off work. She went on leave from Feb. 7 to March 8.

On March 15, Dhaliwal approached her at work and said he wanted to discuss the tension. Cadrin told him she didn’t create the tension, and that she was coming to work to do her job. But this incident upset her and she went home. She said she needed to take a week off for sick leave. On March 22, he offered her another week of sick leave, which she accepted.

On March 21, Dhaliwal texted Cadrin’s husband and asked him for a phone call. Mr. Cadrin said the call was an offer to lay off Cadrin, so she could collect EI, and Dhaliwal would then top that up by paying money to Mr. Cadrin’s business for one year. Mr. Cadrin said he was not interested in the proposal.

On March 25, Cadrin told Dhaliwal he should not be discussing her work situation with her husband. At that point, she said he offered her six months’ wages plus two more trips to Mexico. She declined, said she did not want to take early retirement and would be back at work on March 29.

The termination

When Cadrin arrived for work at 6 a.m. on March 29, Dhaliwal came in with an envelope and said he had Karen Rutledge, an HR specialist, on the phone. Cadrin phoned her husband to come in as a witness.

Dhaliwal said neither Cadrin or her husband wanted to take the envelope. Cadrin said she heard the person on the phone say he should take the keys and ask them both to leave.

She left her key, took the envelope and left the store. Inside the envelope was a termination letter. She was paid eight weeks’ severance and offered an additional 32 weeks. She did not accept the offer.

Devastated by the dismissal, she did not start looking for another job until the end of June 2022. She applied for a total of 32 jobs and had a couple of interviews, but no job offers.

The notice period

Since there was no allegation of cause, the court’s role was to determine the notice period; whether or not Cadrin failed to mitigate her damages by securing alternate employment; and to decide on the issue of punitive and aggravated damages.

Cadrin sought 24 months’ notice, while the employer countered with a range of 15 to 18 months.

She was 58 at the time of termination and had been with the company for 35 years. Her management duties were “low level,” the court said. It noted that her age and lack of computer skills would be a hindrance in finding another job, but there were plenty of positions in customer service available in the Chilliwack area, it said.

Therefore, 20 months’ notice was appropriate.

Duty to mitigate not met

The court was unimpressed by Cadrin’s job search efforts, which took four months to begin.

“She did not undertake a thorough and methodical job search and her efforts appeared random and haphazard.,” it said. “She did not take any steps to learn how to search and apply for jobs online, even though it was clear in the job postings sent to her by the defendant that online applications were common.”

Nor did she follow up with liquor stores where she dropped off resumes, even though some of those stores posted jobs afterwards.

Jolly Miller argued that should negate the award down to zero months, but the court said that was too extreme.

“As the plaintiff did take some steps to mitigate, there is no basis to reduce the award to zero,” it said.

It decided to reduce the notice period by two months as a result of the failure to mitigate her damages.

It further reduced the damages by another month because the notice period went beyond the trial date, leaving an award of 17 months.

The Mexico trips

The court ruled the trips to Mexico were discretionary and not part of her regular benefits.

“I find that the cost of the flights to Mexico were not part of her regular compensation package, but a gift provided by the defendant at its discretion,” it said.

“I note that in 2021 and 2022 when travel was impacted by the pandemic and the trips had to be cancelled, there was no reimbursement of the cost of the flights to the plaintiff. This supports the view that the flights were not part of the plaintiff’s regular compensation.”

Aggravated and punitive damages

Cadrin sought aggravated and punitive damages, arguing the termination was done in bad faith.

Examples cited included the “illegal offer” to pay severance to her husband so she could collect employment insurance benefits.

“The proposal to pay severance to Mr. Cadrin’s company was in the context of a discussion of options; Mr. Dhaliwal testified that he stated he would have to seek the input of his accountant. It went no further,” the court said.

It also had no issue with the HR person on the phone during the termination meeting.

“The defendant is a small company with limited resources. Mr. Dhaliwal was trying to obtain advice to conduct the termination properly. The termination meeting was held early in the morning when there were no other staff or customers at the Jolly Miller,” it said.

For more information, see Cadrin v Dunsmuir Holdings (New Westminster) Ltd., 2023 BCSC 130 (CanLII)

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