WARNING: This story contains content some may find disturbing. Discretion is advised.
One of the complainants who made sexual harassment allegations against College Coun. Rick Chiarelli is now suing the City of Ottawa for purportedly failing to meet its expectations as an employer and allowing the councillor to foster a “hostile and poisoned” work environment.
Stephanie Dobbs, a former assistant to the embattled councillor, is claiming $325,000 in damages and lost income against the city related to her experiences working in Chiarelli’s office.
In a statement of claim filed on Jan. 11, 2021, Dobbs’ lawyer Todd Barney charges that the city breached its own policies around workplace harassment and staff relations as well as the Ontario Human Rights Code. The suit also claims Ottawa city council broke its own code of conduct in Dobbs’ case.
The allegations in the statement of claim have not been proven in court.
But Ottawa’s integrity commissioner Robert Marleau, who investigated allegations against Chiarelli made by former employees and job applicants to the councillor’s office, concluded in two reports in 2020 that the accusations made by Dobbs and other complainants were founded.
Dobbs was referred to as “Complainant 2” throughout Marleau’s second report released last fall. The report detailed several allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace, among them that Chiarelli made inappropriate comments about female staff members’ bodies, and would ask them to “go braless.”
The councillor did not cooperate with Marleau’s investigation and has denied all allegations against him.
City solicitor David White would not comment on the allegations on Friday.
“In keeping with its standard approach in respect of litigated matters, the City of Ottawa does not comment publicly on cases that are before the courts,” White said in a statement to Global News.
News of the lawsuit was first reported by the Ottawa Citizen.
The statement of claim details the alleged abuse Dobbs faced and says Chiarelli fostered a “hostile and poisoned” work environment. The city is “directly and vicariously liable” for the damages she faced, the suit charges.
The claim says Dobbs was “subjected to numerous acts of harassment and sexual harassment, highly negative, abusive, and traumatic experiences, and improper conduct” while under Chiarelli’s employ.
It tracks her experiences from applying for the position in 2015, when she says she was asked to disclose personal secrets during the interview to gain the councillor’s trust, through to 2018, when she says she was forced to go on medical leave as a result of her experiences in the College Ward office.
Dobbs became ill and suicidal toward the end of her tenure in the office, the claim states, forcing her to take medical leave and affecting her ability to earn a living wage during her employment at the city as well as afterwards.
Though Ottawa councillors are in charge of hiring decisions, employment contracts for councillors’ assistants are set up through the city itself.
The claim charges that the lack of standardized recruitment, interviewing and hiring policies for assistants “created and fostered the potential for an uncivil, disrespectful, toxic and poisoned work environment for councillors’ office staff.”
City council moved to shore up some of its shortcomings around the process of hiring councillors’ assistants last year in the wake of Marleau’s findings.
Council passed a motion in July 2020 that would see a third party from the city clerk’s office or human resources present in all interviews going forward, as well as to ensure all such interviews take place on municipal grounds.
Council has docked Chiarelli 450 days of pay, stripped him of committee assignments and unanimously called on him to resign from his post, but he continues to serve in the current term of council.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
Crisis Services Canada’s toll-free helpline provides 24-7 support at 1-833-456-4566.
The toll-free Hope for Wellness helpline provides 24-7 support for Indigenous Peoples at 1-855-242-3310. Online chat services are also available.
Trans Lifeline operates a toll-free peer support hotline for trans and questioning people at 1-877-330-6366.
For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.