RCMP harassment class action could cover up to 20,000 women

A sexual harassment class-action lawsuit against the RCMP could be open to as many as 20,000 women — a figure that stuns former RCMP officer Janet Merlo, one of the lead plaintiffs in the case.

'It started with 20 of us, and then the 500 mark was a huge deal,' says lead plaintiff Janet Merlo

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson answers a question during a news conference, as plaintiffs Janet Merlo, centre, and Linda Davidson look on, in Ottawa last October. Paulson has apologized to hundreds of current and former female officers and employees for alleged incidents of bullying, discrimination and harassment. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A class-action harassment suit against the RCMP now certified by the Federal Court is open to as many as 20,000 female employees — and could cost the federal police force more than expected.

Janet Merlo and Linda Gillis Davidson, both former RCMP officers, had each launched lawsuits against the force.

Certification of the class action, which Ottawa did not oppose at a hearing last week, paves the way for the court to give its blessing to a tentative settlement reached last May between the federal government and the women.

Merlo, who launched her claim in 2012, said she was astounded and overwhelmed when she realized last week that the class action could include 20,000 women.

"It started with 20 of us, and then the 500 mark was a huge deal, and now to think it could get into the thousands," she said Monday after a federal judge found that the lawsuit could proceed.

"I never in my wildest dreams thought that 20,000 would answer.… It's so damn disappointing that all these careers were lost and all these lives when they knew all along it was an issue," said Merlo, who spent most of her career in Nanaimo, B.C.

Davidson of Bracebridge, Ont., who began a parallel lawsuit in 2015, is also a representative plaintiff of the settlement. 

David Klein, a lawyer representing Merlo, said if the settlement is approved at an upcoming hearing, it will be applied at six levels of compensation ranging from $10,000 to $220,000, depending on the severity of the harassment.

Cost could rise

When a settlement agreement relating to the cases was announced in October, it was expected to cost about $100 million, depending on the number of women who joined.

Klein told CBC News the $100-million figure is an estimate. 

"The RCMP has said they will pay the claims at the stipulated amounts regardless of how many women come forward.  At this point, we don't know what the total will be. It could exceed $100 million if more women come forward than was expected," Klein said.

Federal Court Judge Ann Marie McDonald also approved a notice that will be going out to all potential 20,000 female members of the class in about a week. In addition to direct mailing, notices will be published in major newspapers and social media. 

Women can opt out

Klein says women can opt out if they don't want to be part of the class action.

There will be a settlement approval hearing likely in May of this year, he said, where women can express their support or objection to the settlement. According to Klein, it doesn't make sense for any of the women to opt out of the case unless they are pursuing their own individual lawsuit. 

"This is a good opportunity to receive compensation for the harassment and discrimination they experienced," he said.  

Women who have already filed suits on their own can opt out and join the class action too. In her written decision, McDonald said "individual actions would be inefficient and uneconomic."

The opt-out deadline is likely to be the end of March. 

Spouses and children could qualify

In addition to the "primary class" of female employees, there is a provision that "secondary class members"  — spouses and children of the severest cases — could also receive compensation up to a maximum of 10 per cent.  

The harm caused by the harassment will determine which level it will be compensated at, said Klein. 

Former Supreme Court of Canada justice Michel Bastarache will evaluate the individual claims and administer the deal.

Klein said the feedback from women since October has been positive.

"They were pleased to see RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson make a public apology and the [changes] that the RCMP is making to eliminate gender harassment and discrimination in the force," he said.

With files from The Canadian Press