Ex-London, Ont. municipal worker files $486K suit against city after arson count withdrawn

River Road Golf Course London Ont., April 21, 2022, shortly before being torn down. Sawyer Bogdan / Global News

A former London, Ont., municipal worker, charged last year with arson in the wake of a blaze at River Road golf course, is seeking at least $486,000 in damages as part of a wrongful termination lawsuit against the city, Global News has learned.

Michael Peter Belanger, 55, a former supervisor on the city’s fleet team, was arrested and charged on Nov. 12, 2021, with one count of arson causing damage to property in connection with the blaze, which occurred five days earlier causing $1 million in damage to the course’s clubhouse building.

The charge was dropped last month at the request of the Crown, according to court document obtained by Global News.

“On July 18, 2022, the charge against Mr. Belanger was withdrawn unconditionally as there was no reasonable prospect of conviction in the case,” said criminal defence lawyer Michael Juskey in an email.

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“Mr. Belanger and his wife are grateful that the London Crown Attorney’s office did the right thing and they look forward to moving past this traumatic and stressful chapter of their lives.”

Belanger has since filed a statement of claim against the city seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages as part of a wrongful termination lawsuit.

In the statement of claim, filed on Aug. 4 in the Superior Court of Justice in Toronto, Belanger alleges the city was not justified in firing him with cause and without advance notice or pay in lieu thereof on Jan. 11, after more than five years of employment.

“In fact, the alleged misconduct which the Defendant cited as justification for its assertion of cause did not occur and/or was not so serious that it was irreconcilable with sustaining the employment relationship,” the statement of claim says.

“In the overall context of Michael’s long and unblemished career, the Defendant was not justified in dismissing Michael for cause.”

The statement of claim also alleges that the city intentionally made unspecified false public statements about Belanger in the wake of its decision to terminate him, and in doing so, intended to harm his reputation, “and/or knew that this was a reasonable consequence.”

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“The Defendant advanced its allegation of cause knowing it was unlikely to be justified and did so without regard for the impact this would have on Michael, his reputation and/or his employability,” the statement of claim alleges.

“The Defendant also conducted a biased investigation aimed at terminating Michael with cause, contrary to the duty of good faith owed to Michael.”

The city suspended Belanger with pay after his arrest and said it would conduct an internal investigation into the matter. The results of that investigation have not been made public.

In February, the city confirmed to the London Free Press that Belanger was no longer an employee, but would not disclose any particulars, including whether he was fired or quit.

Given several factors including his age, position, tenure, a lack of comparable jobs, the “public slandering of his reputation,” and the COVID-19 pandemic, “Michael pleads that the length of his reasonable notice period is 12 months,” the statement of claim says.

As a result, Belanger is seeking $85,764 in damages for wrongful dismissal representing a years pay in lieu of reasonable notice, along with a combined $400,000 in damages for “defamation and injurious falsehood,” and “bad faith, aggravated and/or punitive damages,” the statement of claim says.

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In addition, the lawsuit seeks $659.74 in damages for vacation pay, along with damages for lost health and dental benefits, and damages for “loss of participation in the Ontario Municipal Employees’ Retirement System.”

Also sought are unspecified special damages for out-of-pocket expenses accumulated in Belanger’s attempts to get a different job, “the full particulars of which will be provided prior to trial,” the statement of claim says.

The statement of claim alleges that Belanger has been unable to find comparable employment since being fired by the City of London.

None of the allegations made in the statement of claim have been proven in court.

No statement of defence had been filed by the city as of Tuesday, and officials with the municipality declined to comment when contacted by Global News.

“Our policy is that we don’t provide comment on matters that are related to personnel,” said Jo Ann Johnston, the city’s media relations manager in an email.

(Two days after this story’s initial publication, the City of London filed a notice of intent to defend with the court. The city now has until Aug. 29 to file a statement of defence.)

Belanger has retained Toronto-based employment lawyer Jason Jagpal of Whitten & Lublin in the lawsuit. Global News contacted Jagpal for comment on Tuesday but he was unavailable. An inquiry to Jagpal’s assistant was not returned by publishing time.

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“Decisions related to withdrawing criminal charges are those of the Crown. If anyone has any additional information in relation to the fire at the River Road Golf Course, we would ask them to contact the London Police Service to provide that information,” a police spokesperson said in an email.

The River Road blaze came days after it was announced that the former course would be utilized for a planned Indigenous-led temporary shelter site operated by Atlosha Family Healing Services as part of the city’s winter response to homelessness.

Just over two weeks after the fire, officials with Atlosha announced that the temporary shelter would instead be located on the grounds of Parkwood Institute.

The fire-damaged River Road clubhouse was demolished by the city in April.

At the time of the fire, Belanger and his spouse, Susie Dietrich-Belanger, owned a nearby home located at 2255 River Rd., the rear property line of which backed onto the closed golf course.

The home was put on the market in September 2021 for $1.8 million, with Dietrich-Belanger as the listing agent. The following month, the asking price was lowered to $1.6 million.

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The couple sold the property in March for $1.4 million, according to provincial property records.

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