A court has ruled that a Vancouver law firm wrongfully dismissed a woman it employed as an articling student.
The judge also found that Melissa Kristine Ojanen not only suffered emotionally because of her experience at the Acumen Law Corporation.
Her loss of employment also drove Ojanen to become homeless for three months.
“She is the victim of unfair, bullying, bad faith conduct by her former employer and her former principal and has suffered substantial and prolonged emotional distress because of that conduct,” wrote B.C. Supreme Court judge Geoffrey Gomery in his reasons for judgment.
The principal referred to by Gomery is lawyer Paul Doroshenko, founder and sole proprietor of Acumen Law. The judge also noted that the firm’s senior associate is Kyla Lee.
Because of what Ojanen went through, the judge ruled that she is “entitled to a substantial award of aggravated damages” of $50,000.
Gomery also ordered Acumen Law to pay Ojanen $18,934 in ordinary damages.
As for Doroshenko, the lawyer is to pay the woman $10 in nominal damages.
Ojanen’s brief tenure in 2016 led to two lawsuits: one brought by Acumen Law against her various alleged acts, including taking material from the firm, and the second by the woman against the law firm.
Citing Ojanen’s evidence, Gomery wrote in his reasons for judgment that she “blames the dismissal and the lawsuit for the break-up of her marriage”.
“She feels herself an outcast from the legal profession and unqualified for other employment,” Gomery wrote.
Ojanen has been mostly unemployed since she was fired from Acumen Law.
“She could not afford her rent and lived out of a car for three months,” the judge wrote.
The car belonged to her now ex-husband, who later took back the vehicle.
“Ms. Ojanen lived on the street for a week or so after that before she was able to persuade her parents to take her in; she now lives in an apartment they own,” Gomery noted. “Pending the resolution of this lawsuit, her life has been on hold.”
The judge dismissed Acumen Law’s allegations of misconduct against Ojanen.
In contrast, Gomery found a number of actions by Acumen Law and Doroshenko as “unfair and unduly insensitive.”
These include serving Ojanen a termination letter and notice of civil claim in front of her classmates at her Professional Legal Training Course (PLTC).
This was “unnecessary and psychologically brutal”.
“Ms. Ojanen lived a short walk from Acumen’s office,” the judge noted. “Mr. Doroshenko knew her address. In his evidence, Mr. Doroshenko suggested that he made the decision to serve Ms. Ojanen at PLTC because the server could not locate her at home. This is manifestly untrue. The notice of civil claim was filed on September 16 and Ms. Ojanen was served before classes were done for the day. This was a deliberately public firing.”
Gomery also recalled that in the termination letter and notice of civil claim, the law firm and Doroshenko accused the woman of “deceit and dishonesty”.
“These accusations were harsh and unwarranted,” according to the judge. “The only basis for these accusations were unfounded suspicions.”
Acumen Law and Doroshenko also “persisted in unfounded allegations against Ms. Ojanen through the litigation process to this trial, three years later”, the judge wrote.
According to the judge, Doroshenko’s decision to terminate Ojanen's employment was triggered by his discovery of a website called 'BC Driving Prohibitions Blog'.
The blog contained information for people facing driving violation charges, and the lawyer believed that Ojanen was behind it.
Citing Lee's evidence, the judge noted that Acumen Law "specializes in what Ms. Lee compendiously described as 'driving law', including the defence of criminal and regulatory offences committed while driving, reviewing driving prohibitions and related requirements imposed under the Motor Vehicle Act".
The judge wrote that while Doroshenko was protective of the firm's interest, his response was “disproportionate and bullying”.
Gomery noted that Ojanen claimed that the blog was a project of her husband at the time. The judge found that the woman "participated in the Blog from the time it was posted on the Internet".
However, this activity did not constitute competition with Acumen Law, which has "made a meal" of driving law.
"The Blog does not offer legal advice," the judge stated. "It provides information concerning roadside prohibitions that is equivalent to that offered by Acumen and Ms. Lee in their blogs, without charge, to the world at large."