City of Vancouver slammed for handling of defamation case
Judge found consultant's 'needless lawsuit' could have been avoided with simple courtesy
A B.C. Supreme Court judge has slammed the City of Vancouver for failing to extend the "simple courtesy" to a community centre consultant that could have averted a "needless" defamation lawsuit.
In a strongly-worded judgment, Justice Nigel Kent said taxpayers might have avoided the expense of a 12-day trial if the city had given Stewart Jordan a "carefully crafted reply" to questions about allegations against him by a city staffer.
'Lack of an explanation is troubling'
Calling the city's tactics "less than impressive", Kent also criticized the administration for losing crucial video footage after taking pains to have it preserved by an outside contractor.
"Whether this was simply ineptitude or by design is not entirely clear," Kent wrote.
"Yet even assuming that it was the former and not the latter, the lack of an explanation is troubling."
The backdrop to the events in the lawsuit was a bitter battle between the Vancouver Park Board and a handful of community centres opposed to a Vision Vancouver plan to pool revenues from community centre associations.
The community centre associations ultimately sued, accusing the board of trying to take over their operations.
Jordan, 64, spent his working life at community centres. After his retirement, he became a consultant for the associations fighting the board.
In September 2013, recreation programmer Marina Ribatto encountered Jordan in the office area at Sunset Community Centre.
She claimed he asked her if she was wearing a bikini top under her blouse and then commented on her tan, touching her under the arm with the tip of one finger.
Ribatto recounted the allegation to a shop steward. He, in turn, called Jordan, who is a life-long friend.
But according to the judgment, the shop steward got the story wrong; he told Jordan "he was being accused of touching Ms. Ribatto's breast. There is also little doubt that Mr. Jordan believes very strongly no such contact occurred."
Kent found the case was largely triggered by the steward's breach of confidence.
"He not only failed to listen carefully to what Ms. Ribatto told him but he thereafter immediately disclosed that confidential information to Mr. Jordan," Kent wrote.
"This, in turn, triggered Mr. Jordan's outraged and misplaced pursuit for exoneration and led to his inaccurate belief that a false accusation of inappropriate sexual touching had been made."
Battle won, but costs denied
Kent found that the city then "unreasonably refused to respond" to Jordan's requests for information.
Jordan's lawyer wrote to the city's solicitor twice about the allegations and received no reply, a response Kent found could arguably be seen as a breach of the code of professional conduct guiding B.C. lawyers.
He also received a response to a freedom of information request which Kent said was "nothing short of insulting": copies of his own letters with blank pages of redacted information.
The city took lengths to preserve video surveillance of the area where the incident happened. It apparently showed Ribatto and Jordan talking, but not him touching her.
The city had the footage preserved by a contractor, but somehow lost it. Jordan was told it was on a seven-day loop and unavailable, which Kent noted was inaccurate.
While he denied touching Ribatto, Jordan admitted that commenting on her bikini and pointing at her was "inappropriate and rude."
Kent found that while the statements Ribatto made about Jordan were defamatory, they were true. In any event, a qualified privilege applied because the comments were made in the context of a complaint about disrespectful conduct.
In dismissing Jordan's claim, the judge declined to award costs to the city because of the city's behaviour.
But since the city didn't have the opportunity to make submissions on costs, Kent gave them time to apply for a court order seeking to overrule his decision.