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Justice rules against former Qulliq executive assistant
Letter asking to negotiate termination package cited in judgment

Miranda Scotland
Northern News Services
Published Monday, January 27, 2014

IQALUIT
A Nunavut judge has ruled in favour of Qulliq Energy Corporation (QEC) in a $444,000 lawsuit brought forward by former employee Sarah Kucera.

Kucera worked as former QEC president Peter Mackey's executive assistant for a little over a year when, she claims, she was "constructively dismissed."

Constructive dismissal occurs when an employer unilaterally decides to make significant changes to the terms of a worker's employment contract.

Kucera's lawyer sent a letter to QEC on Aug. 5, 2010 alleging constructive dismissal and asking to set up negotiations for a termination package.

The corporation replied in a letter and terminated Kucera's employment on Aug. 20, 2010.

"Considering the seriousness of your employment offence, as well as several previous indiscretions, (QEC) has just cause for your direct dismissal," the document reads.

Kucera subsequently brought the matter to court, where she argued four factors led to her departure from the company, according to court documents.

Early on in her employment, Kucera said she was faced with a hostile work environment created by the director of human resources, Catherine Cronin.

During a dinner party she attended her first week on the job, Cronin confided in Kucera about concerns she had with a person in the position of corporate legal counsel and the corporate secretary. She felt both people were untrustworthy.

The corporate secretary filed a lawsuit against QEC and was recently awarded $133,812.61 in damages by Justice Earl Johnson.

Cronin reiterated her concerns at another date after Kucera forwarded an e-mail Cronin had sent about travel arrangements for upcoming meetings to the corporate secretary.

Problems arose again when Kucera received a six-month performance review. She discussed the review with Mackey and it was decided she would receive a salary increase.

However, she later received a letter from him about her salary increase and the number was far lower than what they had discussed - $106.10 as opposed to $6,332.

The situation was eventually sorted out but Kucera was displeased with an e-mail Cronin sent on the topic.

Two of the lines read, "Needless to say she wasn't happy," and "Please ensure that the changes are made to Sarah's salary or I will face being shot in the face with 50 of her earrings."

As a result of the ongoing difficulties Kucera was having with Cronin, a mediation was set up. But it was unsuccessful given the fact it was run by a QEC employee who reported to Cronin.

Another aspect of Kucera's argument in court was that QEC downgraded her position following a functional review.

At the same time, the positions of corporate secretary and corporate legal counsel were also downgraded and Kucera feared she was being grouped with employees who were considered untrustworthy.

During the same time period, Kucera was told she would no longer be responsible for preparing briefing notes for the minister responsible for QEC.

She noted this as another factor in her constructive dismissal.

Her final argument was that QEC posted the position for corporate secretary while she was away and the competition closed before she could return.

Kucera had made it clear she was interested in the position and thus felt they intentionally posted the job when she wasn't at work.

After considering the facts, Justice Susan Cooper concluded in a judgment released Jan. 17 that Kucera had not been constructively dismissed because Kucera's relationship with Cronin was difficult but it wasn't all bad and at times it was "supportive and friendly."

Although Kucera's position was downgraded, her salary wasn't and, in fact, she received a raise.

Some of Kucera's duties were taken away from her but they were only one part of her job description, Cooper ruled.

"Employers must be allowed some flexibility to restructure the organization as circumstances demand without risking the potential for a claim of constructive dismissal in response to each change," wrote Cooper.

Finally, the judge ruled that the letter sent by Kucera's lawyer was a repudiation of her employment contract.

"(Kucera's) position required a high level of trust and required that she maintain the confidence of her superiors. It would have been impossible for this to have been achieved had there been a return to the workplace following the Aug. 5 letter," Cooper stated.

Cooper further advised that counsel may speak to court costs either through written submissions or by setting a court date.

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