Ontario court rejects $1.5 million counterclaim against worker who made racism accusations through CTV News

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In a ruling that elevates the fight against workplace racism over corporate reputation, an Ontario court dismissed a $1.5 million counterclaim filed by an employer against a worker who publicly accused the company of racial harassment in the media.

“There are few expressions more essential to a productive pluralistic society than the elimination of workplace racism,” the court stated.

The worker, AW, was a sheet metal mechanic at Ontario-based Vac Developments, a company specializing in aerospace and defense manufacturing.

Death threats, anti-Black graffiti

AW alleged that he faced racist comments, sabotage, death threats, and anti-Black graffiti at work, charges that gained public attention after he spoke to CTV News.

While Vac Developments acknowledged two incidents — one involving a noose drawn on AW’s locker and another involving racist graffiti — the company characterized them as “isolated events” and took measures to address them. AW, however, lost confidence in the company’s ability to tackle racism effectively, especially after his layoff.

AW had worked for the company from January 2018 until his layoff on June 16, 2021. On June 21, 2022, he was informed that the layoff was permanent. No settlement or statutory benefits typically provided upon termination have been extended to him as of yet. At the time of his layoff, AW was earning about $924 a week.

Vac Developments attributed the layoff to staff reduction during a business slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. AW contested this explanation, insisting that he was laid off after requesting law enforcement intervention to deal with racially motivated threats at his workplace.

Claim and counterclaim

After his layoff, AW filed a Statement of Claim in August 2021, seeking $24,024 in statutory entitlements and $140,000 in damages for wrongful termination. He also called for an external investigation into incidents of anti-Black racism at the company.

Vac Developments countered with a Statement of Defence and a $1.5 million Counterclaim in November 2021, alleging injury to reputation, loss of business, defamation, injurious falsehood, and unlawful interference with economic interests.

AW then filed an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss the company’s counterclaim, citing the Ontario Courts of Justice Act.

The court concluded that the public interest in protecting AW’s freedom of expression outweighed any potential damages to the company’s reputation. It specifically criticized the company for failing to provide any concrete evidence of financial loss and called the $1.5 million counterclaim “disproportionate and fraught.”

“The failure of the company to itemize or explain any basis for their damages claim of $1.5 million, and the weak to modest grounds to believe that (AW’s) statements to CTV are not protected by a fair comment defence, give the company’s counterclaim little weight in the weighing exercise,” the court said.

The counterclaim was dismissed.

For more information, see Williams v. Vac Developments Limited, 2023 ONSC 4679 (CanLII)