Record human rights award given to B.C. executive assistant subjected to extreme harassment, abuse and abandoned in Mexico

Boats at Puerto Aventuras Marina in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Photo: HotHibiscus/Getty Images/Canva

An executive assistant who was subjected to extreme workplace harassment and abuse at the hands of her boss has been awarded more than $170,000 by the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal.

That includes a record $100,000 award for injury to a complainant’s dignity, feelings, and self-respect related to sexual harassment and assault.

“I acknowledge that this award is the highest that the Tribunal has awarded for sexual harassment and assault,” wrote vice-chair Devyn Cousineau in the ruling.

“In my view, the increase is justified, first, by the nature of the discrimination, which lasted longer than other cases, pervaded almost all aspects of Ms. L’s employment, and included physical and sexual violence. Second, Ms. L has presented evidence of a lifelong impact on all aspects of her life.”

A warning to readers – some of the details in this case are very disturbing. We have not written about all of them in our coverage.

What happened

The woman, identified as Ms. L, was employed by SH and his companies — Clear Pacific Holdings Ltd. and Whitehawk Investments Ltd. The Tribunal found that during her employment, SH subjected her to sexual assault, harassment, and emotional and physical abuse.

“Throughout Ms. L’s employment, (SH) subjected her to sexual comments and innuendo, unwanted touching, and unwelcome flirtation,” the Tribunal said. “He required her to remove her clothing, and exhibited jealousy when she spoke to other men. In March 2018, he sexually assaulted her by getting her intoxicated and sexually touching her without consent.”

Ms. L, who has a substance use disorder, was exploited and controlled by SH, culminating in her abandonment in Mexico with no financial resources.

“He ensured that Ms. L was reliant on him for cocaine and money. None of this conduct can be extricated from Ms. L’s sex and disability, and I find it is all discriminatory,” the Tribunal said.

The final physical assault came in October 2019 in Mexico when SH became enraged when she was talking with other men.

“He suddenly lunged at her. He grabbed her neck and punched her. She fell back. He continued to punch and kick her, and tripped her when she tried to stand. He threw her down the stairs. He commanded his dog, Capone, to attack her. Capone, who loved Ms. L, would not attack,” the Tribunal said.

It came to an end when security at the marina arrived and boarded the boat. They helped her gather her things and carried her off the boat — she was “shaking, hyperventilating, and struggling breathe.” Staff at the marina in Mexico took photos of her injuries as evidence, and guarded her hotel room the rest of the night.

She eventually found a boat ride back to San Diego and was able to call her parents, who arranged for her to fly home in November 2019. Even after this, her boss reached out asking if they could “put Mexico behind us” and telling her that his dog Capone “misses you so much.”

He then switched tactics, writing an angry email that blamed her for the assaults and suggesting he had saved her from a dangerous situation and gave her two options: Rejoin him and “chalk it up to stupid drunken behaviour, and very poor judgment on both our parts” or “go find a job.”

Her response to all this communication was a continued focus on getting the money he owed her.

Ms. L was eventually approved for permanent disability benefits from WorkSafeBC as a result of her employment as well as benefits from CPP.

Penalty

The Tribunal ruled that SH’s actions constituted discrimination under section 13 of the Human Rights Code. It also noted that the power imbalance between the parties in this case was “profound.”

The panel ordered the respondents to compensate Ms. L with $100,000 for injury to her dignity, feelings, and self-respect, $61,541.90 for lost wages due to discrimination, and $8,699.84 for related expenses.

Significantly, the Tribunal’s decision noted the respondent’s non-participation in the hearing process despite being duly notified. This decision and the Tribunal’s file are under a publication ban to protect the identity of Ms. L and her family.

Emotional manipulation and economic exploitation

Evidence presented included Ms. L’s personal testimony, substantial documentary evidence, and psychological expert reports. This corroborated her experiences of sexual and physical abuse, emotional manipulation, and economic exploitation, all linked to her gender and disability.

The ruling emphasized that such discriminatory acts are rooted in power abuse and are inherently gendered.

Ms. L’s 21-month employment was described as marred by a range of abusive behaviors, including unwelcome sexual advances, withholding wages, and physical violence. The decision detailed the devastating impact of this prolonged abuse on Ms. L’s mental and physical health, leading to a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The Tribunal’s award is among the highest for cases involving sexual harassment and assault, reflecting the severe and lasting impact on Ms. L. This case is a stark reminder of the responsibilities employers have towards their employees and the serious legal consequences of violating human rights in the workplace.

The final word

The Tribunal reported a verbatim answer given by Ms. L in response to the last question her lawyer asked during the hearing: “What are you proud of?”

“I never thought I would be able to get to today and be able to do this. This is for me like taking back my power and being able to tell my truth,” said Ms. L.

She noted she was drug free, smoke free, and living a clean life.

“I am thankful for all the support that I have received with the counsellors, with you, with victim services, everybody that’s been a part of seeing me get through this and help me… whether that’s even just like walking out in public, going into a store, getting on a bus,” she said.

“Those small things. But everybody has played a role in getting me to that and it’s been years. I still have a lot of work to do but I have a lot of people rooting for me. I know now. So many people just want to see me be me again… I want to have joy. I want to be me again, I do. I’m hopeful.”

The Tribunal commended her courage in pursuing the case and wished her the best.

For more information, see Ms. L v. Clear Pacific Holdings Ltd. and others, 2024 BCHRT 14 (CanLII)

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