Tim Hortons roasted by Ontario Human Rights Tribunal

Coffee chain ordered to compensate former employee whose poor health played a role in company's decision to fire her

Canada’s favourite coffee shop has enjoyed a banner week on stock markets—but not in front of Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal.

Fresh off its megadeal with Burger King, Tim Hortons has been ordered to pay $12,500 plus three months worth of lost wages to Joanne Ko-Csonka, a former restaurant designer who was fired, in part, because she suffered from legitimate medical issues that forced her to miss work. “The decision to terminate the applicant’s employment was influenced by discriminatory factors,” wrote Brian Cook, the tribunal’s vice-chair, in an exhaustive ruling that tops 11,000 words. “The applicant is entitled to monetary compensation for injury to dignity, feelings, and self-respect.”

In a prepared statement emailed to Maclean’s, Ko-Csonka’s lawyer said Tim Hortons’ conduct was “scandalous” and that his client deserved more money than the judgment provides. “She is pleased that the Tribunal recognized that the Respondents discriminated against her and violated the Human Rights Code when they terminated her after 10 years of loyal service because she had a disability,” Alexander Sinclair wrote. “It is disappointing that the Tribunal’s decision does not adequately compensate her for the discriminatory treatment that she was subjected to and the damages she has suffered as a result.”

An interior designer, Ko-Csonka was employed by Tim Hortons’ licensing company, TDL Group Corp., where she worked on so-called “specialized projects,” such as retro-fitting new stores into pre-existing buildings. The hours were long and the job was intense, Ko-Csonka testified, but she didn’t mind the heavy workload because she “loved” her job.

For a time, at least, Ko-Csonka’s bosses felt the same about her, praising her “passion” and “commitment” in various performance reviews. But by 2010—when she took the first of three medical leaves, each of them completely genuine—her superiors had grown increasingly frustrated with the quality and competence of her work. They accused her of making  “rookie mistakes” and “significant errors” on numerous projects, costing the iconic donut chain money and man hours.

During Ko-Csonka’s first medical leave, a month-long absence in late-2010, she underwent surgery for a potentially cancerous condition. A few days after she returned to the office, a superior gave her a “Written Warning” that outlined problems with seven of her files, including blunders that cost nearly $3,000 to repair. If her performance didn’t improve, the document said, she could lose her job. (One senior Tim Hortons employee, so frustrated by delays on one of Ko-Csonka’s projects, said in an email to colleagues: “I throw in the towel on this one. I feel beaten to a pulp.” That same employee also wrote what the tribunal described as “a somewhat overly dramatic email referring to the possibility of him dying of self-inflicted wounds.”)

A few months later, in February 2011, more concerns surfaced about Ko-Csonka’s work. “We don’t expect these mistakes from Joanne as she has been with the company for 11 years,” another superior wrote in an email. “I told [her] that we will continue to monitor her work and will review her performance again in 2 months time.”

That review never happened. Instead, Ko-Csonka was forced to take another month off after suffering a ruptured appendix and developing an infection. She returned to the office that May, but had to miss yet another four weeks in August—her third medical leave in less than a year—after enduring more complications related to her appendix.

On October 18, 2011, Ko-Csonka was summoned to a meeting with a human resources officer and handed a termination letter.

In her application to the Human Rights Tribunal, she claimed discrimination on the basis of age (she was in her 50s) and disability. Although she wasn’t technically disabled when she was fired, Ko-Csonka argued that her “three absences for medical conditions caused [Tim Hortons] to believe that she would have continuing disabilities.” (Ontario’s Human Rights Code does, in fact, provide equal protection to people who not only suffer from a disability, but are “believed to have” one.)

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Tim Hortons insisted the decision to let her go had nothing to do with her medical history—and everything to do with her work history. Though clearly talented, the company said, Ko-Csonka was repeatedly urged, long before her medical leaves, to pay more attention to detail and “concentrate on quality over quantity.” In her 2003 performance review, for example, a superior said she only “marginally met expectations.” The following year, her boss wrote: “You seem to be all over the place taking direction from other people and make extra work for yourself that is not necessary.” In 2009, she was pressed—once again—to “pay attention and think things through” and “review work for accuracy.”

Ko-Csonka defended herself against many of the company’s allegations, saying some of her supposed mistakes were overblown or unavoidable. As for the errors that occurred while she was off sick, she said most of them would have surely been nipped in the bud had she been in the office.

In the eyes of the tribunal, though, the case hinged on one glaring problem: nobody at Tim Hortons’ head office in Oakville, Ont., could remember exactly when the decision was made to fire Ko-Csonka, and not a single document disclosed during the proceedings shed any light on the answer. Was it merely a coincidence that Ko-Csonka was off sick three separate times in the year leading up to her termination? Or were those absences a factor in her termination? “This question is significantly compounded by the complete lack of any documentation about the process leading up to the termination,” Cook wrote in his ruling, released August 22. “It is difficult to believe that there was no documentation. A number of people must have been involved and human resources personnel were obviously involved.”

In the end, Cook concluded that although “there were genuine performance issues that were the underlying reason for the termination,” it is “more probable than not” that Ko-Csonka’s disability was a contributing factor in her firing. “I am satisfied that the applicant’s disability was not the predominant reason for the termination but I am also satisfied that it was a reason that contributed to the decision to terminate the employment at the time it was terminated.”

In other words, Tim Hortons violated her human rights. “The applicant’s disability was a factor that influenced the decision to terminate the applicant’s employment,” Cook concluded. “The applicant’s right to equal treatment without discrimination on the basis of disability was accordingly infringed.”

Ko-Csonka wanted her job back, but the tribunal refused to go that far, concluding she was already in “a tenuous employment position” even if the company had not infringed her rights. “It is unlikely that the applicant would have simply continued on in her job indefinitely with no further difficulties,” Cook wrote.

Instead, Cook settled on three months worth of lost salary (in addition to any severance already paid) and a monetary award of $12,500. Tim Hortons has 30 days from the date of the judgment to hand over the compensation.

“I can express that this has been a difficult process for my client,” Ko-Csonka’s lawyer wrote to Maclean‘s. “This is scandalous conduct on the part of the Respondents, and TDL in particular.”

Maclean’s contacted Jason Beeho, TDL’s lawyer on the file, and the company’s media relations department. Neither has responded.