A Port Coquitlam employee has won his wrongful dismissal suit against the city after being fired for washing his personal vehicle at a municipal wash facility.
Marco Stevens, a supervisor in the public works department, was awarded nearly $58,000 in damages for wrongful dismissal in B.C. Supreme Court on Dec. 1.
“While Mr. Stevens breached the policy and his conduct reflected poorly on his leadership skills, it did not justify his summary dismissal for cause,” ruled Justice Bruce Elwood.
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“His misconduct was not so egregious that it effectively destroyed the employment relationship,” Elwood wrote.
In November 2020, Stevens stopped at the public works yard on his day off to wash his truck and recreational trailer after returning from a hunting trip with his son.
The city has a policy that prohibits employees from using city facilities, equipment, supplies or resources for personal use.
Another employee saw Stevens. The employee was later caught washing his own vehicle, at which point he said Stevens told him it was OK.
Stevens testified he told the employee that he “probably shouldn’t,” and that it’s “frowned upon.”
When Stevens was still a unionized employee in 2018, he had been told not to wash his truck at the wash facility.
Stevens said it was a casual conversation, no city policies were cited nor any potential consequences.
The meeting was brief, informal and there was no union representative present. No warnings or discipline were issued.
The manager of the public works department, David Kidd, learned of the 2020 incident on Nov. 24. Kidd phoned Stevens’ boss to explain his “utter disappointment.”
Stevens texted both men to apologize.
“I had a lapse of judgments [sic] and I was wrong. I’ll take whatever comes from it on the chin. My bad guys.”
The next day he was fired by the city.
Kidd testified that Stevens’ misconduct was exacerbated because the city had just fired six other employees from his department based on the same policy.
In 2018, the city completed an investigation into a group of employees who it believed had been stealing and selling municipal-owned copper going back to 2000.
The city alleged the group would cut up scrap copper, conceal it in burlap bags in municipal vehicles, before transferring it to personal vehicles to sell.
“Using municipal equipment was essential to the scheme,” according to court documents.
“This was a co-operative effort that required the knowledge and condonation of a number of employees, including unionized supervisors.”
Twelve employees were interviewed in the investigation, including Stevens, resulting in seven being fired in 2018.
The union filed a grievance, but only one dismissal was reversed after an arbitrator cleared one employee of involvement in the copper scheme .
The fallout from the investigation led to an “atmosphere of mistrust” between management and the union.
“The copper theft scheme reflected a culture in which some employees took advantage of their position for personal gain or advantage,” court documents stated.
Less serious examples included employees disposing of personal garbage on site, taking municipal tools home, and maintaining or washing their personal vehicles.
Following the dismissals, changes to the management structure were made, including promoting Stevens to a new managerial position.
One of his duties was ensuring other staff adhered to city policies.
Justice Elwood ruled that Kidd had placed “undue weight” on the recent dismissals and the need for consistent application of city policies when he terminated Stevens.
While Kidd had reason to be disappointed and angry with Stevens in light of recent events, he could have issued a suspension or remedial training, the court found.
“Washing a truck at a municipal wash station is simply not analogous to a nefarious and long-running scheme to use municipal equipment and vehicles to steal city property,” the Justice concluded.
The Justice stated the consequences for breaching the city’s municipal equipment policy were not clear, as Port Coquitlam prohibits a wide range of conduct that would clearly not require summary dismissals.
The city’s investigation into Stevens’ 2020 and 2018 infractions were not thoroughly explored before he was dismissed, Elwood wrote.
“The 2020 Incident reflected poorly on Mr. Stevens’ management skills. However, I am not persuaded the employment relationship was damaged beyond repair,” Elwood stated. “I find that summary dismissal was not a proportionate response to the misconduct.”
Stevens’ claim for punitive damages was dismissed by the judge, stating the city was acting in good faith and had reasonable grounds to discipline him.