...after her employment was terminated for refusing to undergo a background check, the defendant embarked on an email campaign with her former employer that culminated in threats and conduct akin to extortion. The defendant told the plaintiffs that if they didn't settle with her and pay a significant sum of money by a certain date, she would issue a long and detailed press release disclosing the plaintiffs' confidential business methods and disparaging their business reputation.
The facts are summarized in the above quote from paragraph 2 of Ceridian Canada Ltd. v. Azeezodeen, 2014 ONSC 4162 (CanLII) by Justice Belobaba. What happened after she made these threats? The employer obtained a five-day ex parte injunction prohibiting Ms. Azeezodeen from publishing the press release. But that did not stop her from carrying out her threat. The press release was issued and the employer's confidential information was widely disseminated over the Internet by a number of news outlets. The court concluded that Ms. Azeezodeen "knowingly and deliberately" breached the terms of the injunction order by:
- Releasing the enjoined document to press agencies;
- Making absolutely no effort to stop this public release despite the pleas and offers of assistance from the plaintiffs; and
- Failing to provide the plaintiffs with the list of persons to whom she had disclosed the confidential information.
The former employee was found to be in contempt of the injunction order for obvious reasons.
In the ordinary course, the proper way to challenge a court order is to appeal or initiate another proceeding. Ignoring it will bring sanction from the court. While the majority of sanctions are monetary in civil matters, jail sentences do occur – once in a while as a "last resort" and that's what happened here.
In a decision imposing a 20-day sentence, the court said:
The defendant is an intelligent and articulate individual. She also appears to be on a self-proclaimed mission not only to vindicate her 'wrongful dismissal' but also the rights of her co-workers. Her preferred method is akin to extortion – demands for payment of a monetary settlement, initially pegged at $23.2 million then reduced to $500,000, coupled with threats that she will 'go public' with the plaintiffs' confidential business information if the settlement amount is not paid by a certain date. When the plaintiffs obtained a Court Order prohibiting her from doing so, she ignored it and disseminated the confidential information across the Internet. And then, in the days and weeks that followed, she continued to protest the validity of the Order and denied that she breached it.
In my nine years as a judge of this court, I have never encountered a more defiant or less remorseful defendant. Her breach of the Court Order was serious and, in my view, deserves a significant sanction. ...
Why specifically a significant sanction?
- She knowingly and deliberately breached the order, exchanging emails with the plaintiffs' counsel saying "the court order has no effect" and "[the judge] cannot violate my right to free speech."
- Her defiance increased the awareness of a number of press agencies.
- She had ample opportunity, after becoming aware of the order, to take steps to retract the press release, but she intentionally did nothing.
- She had ample opportunity, after becoming aware of the order, to provide a list of individuals to whom the press release/confidential information had been disclosed, but did nothing.
- She continued to fail to provide the list of recipients as required by the order.
- She continued to try to extort a settlement even after she was aware of the court order.
- There was uncontroverted evidence of significant harm that could be sustained by the employer – they had already received a number of questions and comments from clients regarding the press release and this might have an impact on its business and position in the competitive market.
In short, the breach was serious and continuing. In addition, there were no mitigating factors. Ms. Azeezodeen was not remorseful and she did not apologize. She made no attempt to purge the contempt and made no effort to stop the press release when she had the time to do so. Instead, she claimed that she was being defamed and that the court order should never have been issued AND that the court and counsel had "colluded" against her.
Why was a fine not an appropriate sanction?
Costs awarded at the time (amounting to more than $25,000) had not been paid and probably would never be paid as Ms. Azeezodeen was clear that she had no assets and had "nothing to lose". Although Ms. Azeezodeen had another job, she was a single parent providing for four children, one in university. Her employment would go completely or almost completely for the family's living expenses. The court was satisfied that she could not pay and that a fine was not appropriate.
Why a jail sentence?
Incarceration for civil contempt is imposed when needed "to repair the depreciation of the authority of the court" or "to uphold the dignity and process of the court and to protect the integrity of the administration of justice". Justice Belobaba said that this was a case where a jail sentence was necessary to accomplish those objectives and to achieve specific and general deterrence saying:
Where the administration of justice has been flouted or ignored in public, imprisonment may be necessary for the court to send a clear a (sic) message that society as a whole disapproves of anyone who deliberately disobeys a court order.
Notably, the 20-days are to be served intermittently, on weekends, in recognition of her family obligations.
What this means?
Employers have judicial recourse when disgruntled former employees make threats against them including injunctions. This case is an example of the type of threats and activities a former employee should think twice about before doing something as drastic as the defendant did, especially in the face of a court order.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.