The owner of Oliver’s Grapevine Optical will have to pay out more than $70,000 after a wrongful dismissal claim was approved by the BC Human Rights Tribunal.
In a ruling published on June 1, Charles Fellnermayr was found liable for discriminating against Natasha Martin after several years of dispute.
Tribunal member Devyn Cousineau found that Martin had been discriminated against by being fired after eight years of employment.
Martin had made the complaint in August 2019, after she was laid off in July that year and a month after her husband Kyle Martin quit following a heated argument between Fellnermayer and him.
Even following a ruling by the Employment Standards Branch, following a complaint by Martin in order to get access to Employment Insurance, Fellnermayr and his counsel continued to argue through the tribunal that she had quit instead of been fired.
Natasha Martin had begun working at the store in 2008, initially as a licensed optician before becoming the store’s manager with what both the owner and Martin agreed was a wonderful working relationship.
It had even been discussed that Natasha would one day take over the business when Fellnermayr retired.
In 2016, facing a heavy workload, Natasha asked for Fellnermayr to bring on her husband to ease some of her burden, which was approved.
On June, 2019, the relationship began to fall apart, starting with a discussion between Fellnermayr and another optometrist who worked at the store about replacing the store’s signboard. The sign listed an optometrist who was no longer working there.
Martin had not been informed that the other optometrist was leaving, and according to the tribunal, “She questioned whether Dr. B was returning and reminded Mr. Fellnermayr that she was the store manager and needed to be kept in the loop.”
She followed that up with the use of an expletive in a warning. This exchange led to an increase in tensions through the rest of the day, and a lack of response when Martin said goodbye when she left.
Her husband made a remark as he exited the building, and Fellnermayr ended up following him outside to engage in a shouting match that lasted for several minutes before Natasha pulled her husband away.
A witness testified that Kyle was very close to Fellnermayr and screaming “Hit me, hit me,” and “I’ll sue your ass off,” while Fellnermayr is alleged to have said either words to the effect of “I’ll bury you six feet underground,” or “I’d love to put you on the ground.”
Kyle Martin quit and following that incident he also filed a complaint over bullying and harassment with WorkSafeBC, which conducted a workplace inspection of the store. That inspection ended with orders to implement a health and safety program and a new and young worker training program and to develop a policy regarding bullying and harassment, including reporting and investigation procedures and training for all staff.
On July 10, Fellnermayr had a meeting with Natasha where he informed her that he would be taking over her managerial responsibilities and most of her essential job duties, which the tribunal found to be “Whether he intended it or not, this amounted to the termination of her employment.”
“It is apparent that Mr. Fellnermayr had not completely thought through the natural consequences of his actions,” reads that part of the decision. “When she accurately perceived what was happening, he made no efforts to reverse or correct what was happening. Instead, he blamed – and continues to blame – her.”
When she received her Record of Employment, Martin found it listed her as having quit, not having been fired. Martin would end up having to fight Service Canada and take the issue to the Employment Standards Branch over the issue.
The Employment Standards Branch found that Martin had been fired, not quit, and that Fellnermayr had breached the Employment Standards Act, resulting in an order of $5,000 and a $500 administrative penalty to be paid to Martin.
According to the tribunal ruling, Fellnermayr has refused to follow the orders and has, as of June 1, not paid Martin, resulting in a lien placed on his house.
Cousineau found that although Fellnermayr provided non-discriminatory reasons for firing Martin, they were exaggerated or were retroactively used as justification.