Karen Ras can’t sue the City of Mississauga because she was never an employee, motion to quash the case claims
The City of Mississauga has filed to throw out a wrongful dismissal lawsuit by former councillor Karen Ras who alleges the City created a toxic workplace environment. The City claims she “was not an employee.”
Lawyers representing the City filed a motion of defence in January to have Ras’ $686,000 lawsuit dismissed, arguing the former Ward 2 councillor was not considered an employee of the corporation and therefore is not entitled to remedies she’s seeking for an alleged breach of contract amounting to constructive dismissal. The City’s motion follows a statement of claim filed by Ras in November, after her resignation earlier in the year following a protracted dispute with former councillor Ron Starr, who allegedly harassed Ras by scratching her car in a City Hall parking lot.
In her lawsuit, Ras alleges senior officials, including Mayor Bonnie Crombie and former chief administrative officer Paul Mitcham, failed to support her when she sought to have the alleged harassment investigated.
“Taking the facts pleaded in the statement of claim as true, it is plain and obvious that there was no contract of employment between the plaintiff and the corporation, and the plaintiff was not an employee of the corporation,” the motion reads. “As such, the claims as against the corporation for constructive dismissal and for breach of an implied term of the plaintiff’s alleged ‘contract of employment’ ought to be struck without leave to amend as disclosing no reasonable cause of action.”
Ras resigned in early 2022 following her allegations that Starr had repeatedly harassed her throughout much of the previous council term, and allegedly scratched her car multiple times in a City Hall parking lot. Starr has denied the allegations. The City’s integrity commissioner, who mishandled the case, eventually found Starr, on a balance of probabilities, according to available evidence, scratched her car on one occasion (he did not make a determination on other alleged incidents involving the car).
After what Ras describes as “Feeling frightened, concerned for her safety and entirely unsupported by City Management,” the former councillor filed a damning lawsuit in November against the City of Mississauga and Starr in response to a series of events she alleges took place over the course of the last three years. The lawsuit, which claims she “resigned, involuntarily, and was constructively dismissed from her role,” also alleges Mitcham and Mayor Crombie ignored her requests for support while she was allegedly being repeatedly harassed by Starr, who has denied the allegations against him and took his own legal action against the City. Last year Council voted to settle the case with him, after Starr lost his seat in the October election.
“It was an implied term of Ms. Ras’s employment as a Councillor with the City that it would maintain a workplace free from harassment, provide a safe and healthy work environment, and conduct an unbiased, fulsome and transparent investigation into any complaints of harassment or bullying,” Ras’ claim states. The former councillor’s suit against the City and Starr argues she was forced to resign because of the toxic environment the City created for her as a result of how the situation was handled.
Leaders were supposed to maintain a safe working environment, the statement of claim details, noting the City failed to do so, “thus condoning an environment [where] Ms. Ras could no longer continue in her role nor could she continue to serve the public,” adding that because Ras “was left with no choice but to resign,” she was unable to fulfill the remainder of her term on council.
As a result of feeling cornered, the lawsuit filed by Ras in the final weeks of 2022 is seeking 10 months’ compensation – $86,303 in damages for constructive dismissal – including benefits that she would have received during the remainder of her term on Council. She is also seeking $500,000 in punitive damages from the City.
The statement of claim’s allegations raise concern over the culture inside City Hall, especially for female employees and politicians.
“Essentially, the City’s position is that an elected City Councillor has no employment rights and has no right to a safe and healthy work environment; has no right to be free from harassment and has absolutely no rights in general. This is a dangerous position to take, especially considering the escalating abuse that elected representatives, especially women, have been faced with in recent years,” Kathryn Marshall, Ras’ lawyer, stated in an email in response to the motion filed by the City.
Her lawsuit states that after feeling concerned for her safety and an absence of support from the City’s top management, Ras reached out to the City’s Integrity Commissioner Robert Swayze in September 2021 to seek action on the alleged harassment that she had experienced at the hands of Starr “over the course of several years.” The claim also notes it was only after Ras’ resignation and the public outcry caused by media coverage that any action was taken to address complaints that were previously brought to the City.
The lawsuit alleges the City’s Integrity Commissioner Robert Swayze, who was responsible for investigations into alleged violations of the Code of Conduct, dismissed Ras’ concerns, claiming it was a matter for the police to deal with.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer files)
Swayze was responsible for investigations into alleged violations of the Code of Conduct members of council are obligated to follow, which includes requirements to ensure the workplace is free from discrimination and harassment. The lawsuit alleges while Swayze was sympathetic to the former councillor’s situation, “he determined that the scratching of her vehicle by another Councillor was not a violation of any rule in the Code of Conduct.”
When Ras challenged Swayze about why Rule 12 of the Code of Conduct — which makes clear council members cannot abuse, bully or intimidate anyone and that it is their responsibility to ensure a workplace free from discrimination and harassment — was not considered, he claimed the matter was a criminal issue for the police to deal with, not him, according to her lawsuit.
In her claim, Ras describes feeling paralyzed due to the alleged lack of support after bringing her concerns to the City.
After encountering Starr in person in September 2021 where she “felt anxious and experienced extreme nausea as a result of being in the same room” as Starr, the claim notes Ras approached former CAO and City manager Paul Mitcham, who stepped down just two months after the lawsuit was filed, and legal counsel Andra Maxwell, prior to the integrity commissioner finally agreeing to launch an investigation. She told them that she was concerned about the matter and felt the integrity commissioner's inaction would allow the harassing behaviour to continue, the lawsuit claims.
Ras claims Mitcham and Maxwell were unresponsive to her concerns and while they were aware of the situation, they declined to get involved or intervene in any way, arguing that matters related to the Councillor Code of Conduct were to be dealt with by the Integrity Commissioner. In the meantime, they were also aware the commissioner was unwilling to undertake any investigation, the lawsuit alleges.
Ras has also alleged Mayor Bonnie Crombie failed to protect her, claiming that while the Mayor was aware of the situation no action was taken to address it to provide the former councillor “with a safe and healthy work environment.”
In the claim, Ras explains her reason for resigning, after feeling “Frustrated by the City’s lack of support and overwhelmed by her extreme anxiety inability to sleep and fear as a result of Mr. Starr’s actions, Ms Ras felt she had no choice but to leave the City for employment elsewhere.”
Former councillor Ron Starr has repeatedly denied the allegations against him.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer files)
In July, Council eventually voted to suspend Starr without pay for two months after Swayze found Starr, on a balance of probabilities, scratched Ras’s car on at least one occasion. The move triggered Starr’s own legal action which Council later voted to settle near the end of last year.
In her claim, Ras maintains Starr scratched her vehicle eight times over the course of a three-year period (the integrity commissioner's findings only dealt with one incident) and has filed for $100,000 against the former councillor. Several attempts to contact Starr’s lawyer have gone unanswered; the former councillor previously maintained his position that the allegations against him did not happen.
The City of Mississauga’s lawyers are set to appear before a judge in September to deal with the motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
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