Ontario RCMP sergeant awarded $141K in harassment case

Senior RCMP officers harassed a sergeant mercilessly and damaged his career after deciding he had lied to them about his unsuccessful bid to run for the federal Conservatives in 2005, an Ontario judge has ruled.

In awarding Sgt. Peter Merrifield $141,000 for his mistreatment, Superior Court Justice Mary Vallee denounced the RCMP’s conduct as egregious.

“The defendants had a reckless disregard of causing the plaintiff to suffer emotional distress. His emotional distress was severe,” Vallee wrote in her 174-page decision. “The defendants’ outrageous conduct was the actual and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s emotional distress.”

Merrifield, who joined the RCMP in 1998, said after he took part in a Tory nomination meeting in Barrie, Ont., his superiors began a seven-year campaign to damage his reputation that included punitive transfers and unfounded accusations he had committed criminal offences.

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He said his superiors secretly investigated him, audited his expenses, blocked him from taking part in sensitive investigations, bad-mouthed him to confidential informants, and bullied him, among other things, by accusing him of using the police force to advance his political career.

Merrifield testified that one of his superiors, Supt. Marc Proulx, was critical of various Conservative policies on the firearms registry and the definition of marriage. Someone also leaked confidential information about him to the media.

“I did not join to fight liars and bullies inside the RCMP,” Merrifield wrote to a superior at one point.

The father of three, who said he had always been upfront about his political views and activities, sued Proulx, Insp. James Jagoe, and the RCMP for various damages. He said he had been forced to take medical leaves to deal with depression and stress of the situation.

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The Mounties, for their part, argued Merrifield had violated regulations, although he was never formally disciplined. They also maintained that they considered him a valued and skilled officer whose career suffered no harm.

The ensuing civil trial in Newmarket, Ont., garnered national attention in part for a shroud of secrecy thrown over some of the case. When Merrifield called “Witness X” to testify at one point, the proceedings abruptly went in-camera and Vallee ordered related material sealed along with a copy of her sealing order itself.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, who had characterized Merrifield as an overly ambitious agitator at a Senate committee hearing in 2013 based on information from Jagoe, testified at the trial that he had been led to believe Merrifield was a disgruntled employee whose accusations against his superiors were groundless.

The defence at trial painted the sergeant, who was cross-examined for two of three weeks on the stand, as an unreliable and untrustworthy witness. Vallee, however, found him to be credible.

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Ultimately, Proulx’s initial decision to move Merrifield out of national security work was “unjustified and punitive” and irrational, the judge said.

“It resulted in a permanent stain on Mr. Merrifield’s reputation and career,” Vallee wrote. “The stain did not fade with time. Rather, it spread.”

Vallee also concluded that Proulx ordered an investigation into Merrifield’s credit card expenses without asking for an explanation that might have precluded the need for an audit. Proulx also offered no specifics in alleging discreditable conduct against Merrifield over his expenses.

“Supt. Proulx’s actions were obviously offensive,” Vallee said. “In addition to being outrageous, his conduct was also flagrant.”

Vallee did reject Merrifield’s assertion that he was punished for expressing his political views in violation of his constitutional rights. Instead, she said his superiors transferred him because they believed he had lied when he said he would not be running in an election any time soon. Vallee also rejected his claim for breach of contract.

Merrifield had wanted $500,000 in damages. However, the judge awarded him $100,000 in general damages and $41,000 for loss of income resulting from delays in promotions. She refused to award punitive damages.

She also ordered the government to pay his to-be-determined legal costs.

© 2017 The Canadian Press

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