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Late deal in workplace sex-harassment case

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A Manitoba Human Rights Commission workplace sexual-harassment case that had worked its way through the commission's vetting and investigation process was settled on Wednesday after a public hearing on the matter had already begun.

The settlement was agreed to by the complainant Wendy Kilbride and the respondent, A+ Financial and its owner Wayne McConnell.

Details of the settlement agreement were not disclosed.

It is unlikely there would have been any public notification of this matter had it been resolved through the commission's normal process of attempting mediation or other forms of resolution.

Before a complaint gets to the adjudication stage, a lengthy investigation by the commission staff is undertaken. The board determines whether the complaint should be dismissed or sent back to mediation. If that mediation fails, an adjudication hearing is set.

Of the 251 complaints formally registered with the MHRC in 2011, only five were referred to adjudication and two of those were settled before the hearing began.

So it's rare a matter even gets to the adjudication stage for all sorts of reasons.

A person being accused of sexual harassment might want to settle to avoid public exposure and victims of harassment typically prefer to avoid further public scrutiny.

Who knows why McConnell chose to try to derail the process and then settle after the eleventh hour.

But Kilbride was clearly resolved to see it through.

She filed her original complaint in April 2010.

Some of the details of the allegations were presented in the public hearing by Isha Khan, the commission lawyer representing Kilbride.

McConnell hired Kilbride in 2009 to work at A+ Financial and was trained as a mortgage broker. There was a friendly relationship at first, but then, Khan said, McConnell started making sexual advances. When Kilbride made a point of telling McConnell she did not appreciate it and did not want it to continue, McConnell persisted.

"They were not witnessed by others," Khan said. "There were private conversations and emails. It was a classic case... of using power to denigrate an employee by subjecting her to harassment."

Khan said Kilbride was suffering emotionally in the workplace. She decided to quit. When she asked to be paid, she received $150 for her previous four months of work negotiating mortgages on behalf of A+ clients.

This week's scheduled hearing dates were the third time over the past nine months that hearing dates were set and hotel meeting rooms booked.

In December, a lawyer successfully argued for a postponement for medical reasons, producing correspondence only days before the hearing from a doctor noting McConnell was medically unfit to represent himself at the hearing because of mental illness.

On the first day of this week's scheduled hearings, Sid Soronow, the lawyer representing McConnell, again argued for a postponement referring once again to previous psychiatric reports and a brief doctor's note dated days before the hearing.

Soronow said that McConnell was "virtually catatonic."

The commission-appointed adjudicator, Winnipeg lawyer Peter Sim, denied the request for adjournment on medical grounds.

The next day, Tuesday, May 14, McConnell appeared at the hearing representing himself.

Shortly after the hearing began, McConnell said, "We can wrap this up in 10 minutes," suggesting that a settlement agreement was in place.

After a two-hour delay, no settlement was reached and the hearing resumed.

After glaring at Kilbride for some time in a threatening manner, McConnell blurted, "If you had a certified cheque in your hand, would that make a difference? That's what this is about."

In a later outburst, McConnell asked Kilbride if he had her correct address -- again, in a threatening way.

Shortly after, McConnell announced he was not staying and got up and left the hearing room. He later returned.

The attempt at intimidation seemed to work, as Kilbride had to bow out of testifying because Khan said she was so shaken.

Through it all, adjudicator Sim said nothing to McConnell about his behaviour.

Kilbride agreed to a settlement before the start of the hearing Wednesday and one can assume it was satisfactory to her. But her experience with the commission is a cautionary tale.

Appealing to a body such as the MHRC apparently does not necessarily provide a haven from further harassment.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2013 B8

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash


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