WestJet says a proposed class-action lawsuit that accuses the company of failing to provide a harassment-free workplace for female employees is an abuse of process that should be thrown out of court.
The Calgary-based airline argued in a British Columbia Supreme Court on Thursday that the legal claim would be better dealt with through a human rights tribunal or workers’ compensation board.
The company’s lawyer, Don Dear, said WestJet (TSX:WJA) is not disputing the substance of the allegations but believes the arguments are being heard in an improper venue.
“This is not a defence of poor behaviour or an argument that sexual harassment is anything other than completely inappropriate and completely wrong,” Dear told the court.
“Any misbehaviour, any wrongful behaviour, any unlawful behaviour is in no way being condoned by WestJet.”
Former flight attendant Mandalena Lewis sued WestJet over allegations of gender-based discrimination, accusing her former employer of fostering a corporate culture that tolerates harassment against its female employees.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
The lawsuit is framed as a breach of contract, alleging the airline broke a contractual “promise” to prevent its employees from experiencing harassment in the workplace.
It would be a waste of the court’s resources to deal with the claim, Dear argued, accusing the plaintiff of bypassing the proper route for dealing with a human rights complaint or worker’s grievance.
“If this action is permitted to proceed on the basis of a contract, that in effect eviscerates these administrative boards that have been charged by the legislature to deal with these issues,” he said.
The plaintiff wants to punish WestJet and change its behaviour, which is more appropriately dealt with through a human rights tribunal, Dear said.
WestJet’s lawyer also took issue with the plaintiff’s argument that the airline benefited financially from its failure to protect its employees so should have to relinquish some of its profits, calling it a “fanciful submission.”
Lewis was present for the proceedings, accompanied by several women wearing white T shirts with the words “Me Too” in large black lettering, a reference to the social media movement that shares individual stories of sexual harassment and assault after allegations of misconduct were made against film executive Harvey Weinstein.
WestJet’s vice-president of employee and labour relations, Jeff Landmann, declined comment outside court.
Lewis filed an earlier lawsuit against the airline saying she had been sexually assaulted by a pilot while on a stopover in Hawaii in 2010.
WestJet rejected allegations that it failed to take appropriate action after she reported the incident. In its statement of defence, it said immediately launched an internal investigation into Lewis’s complaint, but the company was ultimately unable to conclude the pilot had committed an assault.
Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press