Judge orders lawyer to pay assistant he fired

A Saskatoon lawyer has been ordered to pay a former employee $2,500 after a court found he fired her for being pregnant.

Garth Brehon insisted the pregnancy was not a factor in his decision to terminate Lisa Rice, claiming instead that she simply wasn’t up to the job as a receptionist and assistant for his engineering business and solo law practice. But after a hearing under the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Timothy Keene disagreed.

“I find that she has proven on a balance of probabilities that Mr. Brehon did decide to terminate her employment because she was pregnant,” Keene wrote. “It may have been that he was disappointed with her work but I find he did not raise that issue with her during the week and, particularly, never raised it during the meeting of October 12, 2010 when the opportunity clearly presented itself. Regardless, I am satisfied that Ms. Rice’s pregnancy was a factor, if not the sole reason she was let go.”

After competing a legal assistants’ course in 2009, Rice moved to Brehon’s office from a larger law firm in the city, McKercher LLP, in October 2010, attracted by higher pay, better parking, and more responsibility. Rice was replacing her sister, who had decided to accept a job with the federal government.

Two days after her start date, Rice told Brehon she had discovered she was pregnant, but that she intended to work through the pregnancy. The next day, according to Rice’s testimony, she heard her boss setting up an interview with a new legal assistant, before he told her he didn’t want to accommodate her and gave her two months to find a new job. Within a week, Rice had left the position, blaming the “continued negative actions of Mr. Brehon.”

In his own testimony at the hearing, Brehon claimed he was unsure about hiring Rice from the start, but was convinced by her sister’s willingness to help with her training. He said he was unhappy with her work on the phone system. After she broke the news of her pregnancy, he said Rice appeared stressed and was non-committal when he asked her if she could continue.

At a further meeting, Brehon said he told her the situation was not working out and that he was going to interview another candidate.

“He testified that she asked him if he was firing her because she was pregnant and he said he was not. It was because the work was not getting done. He said she seemed very stressed over her pregnancy and car loan payments,” Keene wrote in his decision.

In his judgment, Keene said he would have had trouble finding in Rice’s favour without the additional evidence of her sister, who was present at one of the meetings between Rice and Brehon, and her former boss at McKercher, who was complimentary about her ability.

“All of this does not point to an individual who could not perform her duties as a legal assistant,” Keene wrote.

Rice found new employment at another law firm within a week of leaving her position with Brehon. She abandoned a claim for loss of wages, but requested compensation for injury to feeling, dignity or self-respect under section 31.4 of the code, which caps compensation at $10,000.

“Ms. Rice was understandably upset by the quick turn of events. In one week she left a secure job, started a new one, found out she was pregnant and then was told because of her pregnancy she would be let go. All of this was stressful. Fortunately, she was able to get employment in her chosen field almost immediately. Taking into consideration all of this, I believe compensation should be set at $2,500,” Keene wrote.

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