Alberta court greenlights Leduc firefighters’ class-action settlement over workplace misconduct

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The Court of King’s Bench of Alberta has approved the settlement agreement in a workplace class-action lawsuit against the City of Leduc that was spearheaded by firefighters Christa Steele and Mindy Smith.

The lawsuit alleges systemic negligence and breaches of rights at Leduc Fire Services — including gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and assault. The settlement includes payments ranging from $10,000 to $285,000, based on the severity of their experience.

Additional compensation of $10,000 will be available to those who qualify for a defamation claim.

City acknowledges behaviour

In the terms of the agreement, the City of Leduc has openly acknowledged that practices such as gender discrimination, sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault have no place within the city or its fire department.

It has also recognized that some fire department members and Leduc employees have unfortunately experienced these injustices in connection with their roles as firefighters.

Steele and Smith, representing themselves and other affected class members, sought compensation for those harmed due to these allegations of misconduct.

Agreement based on Heyder

The primary objective of this settlement is twofold: to compensate those affected by the misconduct and to resolve the claim. The agreement, which is based on a model used in the similar Heyder v Canada (Attorney General)2019 FC 1477 case, includes a series of reparative measures to compensate victims and ensure such incidents are less likely to occur in the future.

The compensation is available to women who experienced such misconduct while working at Leduc between 2002 and the date of certification. This compensation is notably higher than that provided in similar settlements, as seen in the Heyder case.

Victims don’t need to testify, undergo cross-examination

The agreement outlines a claims process that is paper-based, confidential, non-adversarial, and intended to be restorative. Notably, victims won’t need to testify or undergo cross-examination.

Leduc’s Mayor will also read a formal apology at a City Council meeting, and class members will have the option to participate in a restorative engagement program or provide victim impact statements at a City Council meeting.

Furthermore, Leduc is set to introduce changes in workplace policies regarding sexual misconduct, undergo an external review on its efforts against workplace misconduct, and release itself from all future proceedings based on these allegations.

Applying for compensation

To apply for compensation, victims will need to complete an application form that verifies their employment during the specified period, provides basic biographical information, and details their experiences and resulting harm.

They can then be awarded compensation based on various harm levels, including experiences of sexual harassment, unwanted sexual touching, non-consensual sexual activity, and physical or mental injuries resulting from these incidents.

The claims process is intended to be both restorative and non-adversarial. Claimants will have 12 months to submit their forms and may request a 60-day extension in exceptional circumstances. If there are disagreements about eligibility or compensation levels between Leduc’s counsel and the claimant’s representation, an independent third-party assessor will intervene.

The proposed settlement highlights that the parties have avoided lengthy, risky litigation, which might have taken up to five years to resolve. It also ensures that class members receive the highest known compensation for workplace misconduct claims.

After the announcement on June 21, 2023, efforts were made to inform potential Class Members, including email notifications to current employees, postings on the class action website, and extensive media coverage. Since then, all potential Class Members that have contacted the Class Counsel have expressed support for the settlement.

Honoraria payments of $10,000

Honoraria are often awarded to recognize the extra efforts and sacrifices made by representative plaintiffs in advancing litigation for the class, as noted in the Heyder case.

In the present situation, Steele and Smith served as representative plaintiffs. They shared deeply personal and distressing events from their past, drawing substantial public attention to the case. This necessitated their participation in various media events to shed light on the Claim. Moreover, they consistently attended case management meetings with the legal counsel, underscoring their dedication and significant time investment in managing the case.

The Settlement Agreement earmarks an honorarium of $10,000 for each, Steele and Smith. This is in acknowledgment of their contributions and sacrifices.

The decided amounts have gained the consensus of all parties involved. Given the circumstances, the honorarium is considered modest, the court said, and its disbursement has received approval.

Legal fees

Leduc will directly cover the legal fees and expenses (solicitor-own-client fees and disbursements) incurred by the lawyers representing the Class Members, commonly referred to as Class Counsel.

The agreement allows for Class Counsel to later seek additional fees through a court application if deemed necessary.

Importantly, these legal fees are entirely separate from the compensations awarded to Class Members. This ensures that the payments designated for the affected individuals are untouched, and no part of their compensation will be used to cover legal fees.

There is no contingency fee arrangement in this case, where lawyers are paid a percentage of the settlement amount.

After thorough review of the terms in the Settlement Agreement, coupled with observations of the parties’ conduct throughout the litigation, the court dispelled concerns about potential conflicts of interest or unethical “buy-offs.”

The court echoed sentiments from a precedent, Adrian v Canada (Minister of Health), reinforcing that the Class Counsel remains committed to the best interests of the Class Members, unaffected by the direct payment of their fees.

For more information, see Steele v. Leduc (City), 2023 ABKB 460 (CanLII)

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