Fired N.B. health network CEO awarded record-breaking $2M in unjust dismissal case

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Fired New Brunswick health network CEO awarded $2M in unjust dismissal case
WATCH: The former CEO of Horizon Health Network has been awarded $2 million in damages by the province’s labour board. Dr. John Dornan was publicly fired in July 2022 after a patient died in the ER waiting room in Fredericton’s major hospital. The firm representing Dornan says his “reputation was shredded at the altar of someone’s political agenda.” Nathalie Sturgeon reports. – Feb 16, 2023

Dr. John Dornan, the former CEO of Horizon Health Network in New Brunswick, has been awarded more than $2 million in compensation, plus pension contributions and benefits, after he was fired just a few months into his five-year mandate.

According to Dornan’s lawyers, this is the largest employment compensation award in New Brunswick’s history. It also includes $200,000 in aggravated damages.

Premier Blaine Higgs announced Dornan’s firing in July 2022, following the death of a patient in an emergency department waiting room in Fredericton.

Higgs also shuffled out the health minister and wiped the boards of both Horizon and Vitalité health networks.

In a release, Dornan said he was a “political scapegoat.”

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“Nobody should have their career and livelihood taken away like that,” he said.

“I’ve had a cloud hanging over my head. I hope this decision goes some way towards restoring my reputation and allowing me to resume my career.”

Kelly VanBuskirk, Dornan’s lawyer in New Brunswick, said the doctor had spent more than 30 years building his reputation as a physician and health-care executive.

“For a person like Dr. Dornan, who has spent his entire life, really, in the health-care sector, serving people, working with the public, trying to advance the wellbeing of New Brunswickers … having his job taken from him in the way that it was, that’s traumatic, that’s upsetting, that’s humiliating,” he said.

VanBuskirk said Dornan was treated in “bad faith,” as he was “unceremoniously fired in the parking lot” shortly before the July 15 press conference announcing the health-care shakeups.

“Employers have a duty of good faith and fair dealing when terminating someone’s employment,” he said.

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Dornan was named CEO of Horizon Health Network in March 2022. He had been serving as interim CEO since August 2021, replacing Karen McGrath after her retirement.

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During the news conference where Donan’s dismissal was announced, Higgs placed the blame for the struggling health-care system on management.

“It’s not up to me to run the health-care authorities but it is up to me to ensure that the right people are in the position to do so, and it starts at the top,” he said.

“If we don’t get better management results in our hospitals, we won’t get better health care.”

Howard Levitt, a Toronto-based lawyer, said Dornan was publicly blamed for many of the current problems in the province’s health-care system, including the recent death of a patient.

“There is no other way to say it — the premier threw John Dornan under the bus in a public, disingenuous and callous manner, just minutes after he fired him,” he said.

‘Tough discussions’ needed: premier

Speaking with reporters Thursday afternoon, the premier said when he made the decision back in July, he was looking to “bring a sense of urgency into the health-care system.”

“If I had to go back in July, I would be doing the same thing,” Higgs said.

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Asked about the manner in which Dornan was fired – specifically, the “callous and disingenuous” way he was dismissed – Higgs clarified that he wasn’t talking about “what the adjudicator said and what was right or wrong.”

“I was referring to the overall situation and the changes that were made,” he said.

“I think that the statements made and the decision made are still to be evaluated, and that I’ll wait for our legal folks to give me a determination on that.”

Higgs – who is also being sued by another doctor who accused him of publicly blaming him for a COVID-19 outbreak – did not directly answer a question about what these legal actions mean for doctor recruitment in the province, but said improving services for New Brunswickers sometimes comes with “tough discussions.”

“Let’s put aside the personalities and the personal conflicts and say, ‘How do we deliver better results?’” he said.

“I just stick with that principle and so it does involve, sometimes, some tough discussions.”

‘Disingenuous and callous’ firing

In a written decision dated Feb. 15, adjudicator George Filliter accepted that Dornan was fired in a “public, disingenuous and callous manner.”

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It said that Dornan had been asked a day before his dismissal to attend a news conference, but was not told what it would be about.

While Dornan was on the way to the news conference on July 15, it said he received a call from Higgs informing him that Bruce Fitch would be appointed as the new health minister.

It said Fitch then took the phone and “promptly terminated the grievor.”

Filliter wrote that after Dornan was terminated, the premier and the new minister of health held a news conference that referred to the recent emergency room death, and appointed a new health minister, abolished two hospital boards and dismissed Dornan as a result.

“It would be reasonable for a member of the public to conclude that the premier had concluded the grievor was responsible for this unfortunate death,” the decision read.

“Furthermore, the only conclusion to be reached from this news conference was that the announced termination of the grievor was directly related to the unfortunate death.

“In my view, these comments were made without proof and caused unjustified harm to the professional reputation of the grievor.”

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During the adjudication hearing, which took place in December, Dornan testified that an investigation into the emergency room death concluded it had nothing to do with his management.

As well, according to Dornan’s testimony, he has been unable to find work after he was fired.

“According to the evidence of the grievor, there are no positions available in the province, even for someone of his stature and qualifications, because of the system. The two positions he previously held are no longer available,” the decision said.

The decision said he had applied out of the province and had “two very positive interviews” for a position in Saskatchewan similar to the one he was terminated from.

“But he was told by the agency hired to conduct this search on behalf of the province of Saskatchewan that when representatives of the province of New Brunswick were contacted, they did not provide a good reference,” the decision said.

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It also said Dornan “became very much aware of the potentially precarious nature of his job” while he was still working as the interim CEO.

He testified that at one point, he was encouraged to consider ending the obstetric and gynecological services at the Upper River Valley Hospital, which he did.

“The next day he was told by the Board of the employer to reverse his announcement and later he received a call from the Premier in which the grievor was told during this conversation that he had been ‘thrown under the bus,’” it said.

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Filliter’s decision also noted that Dornan had signed a contract that included a termination clause, which would have entitled him to a year’s pay in lieu of notice.

However, the adjudicator found the clause was unenforceable because Dornan had only signed the contract after he had already been in his role for two weeks, and had previously orally accepted terms of his employment, which did not include details about the clause.

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“I have no hesitation in concluding that … (he) felt he was in a vulnerable position as he had no other option having arranged to have his previous positions filled on a permanent basis,” the decision said.

“In considering the extent of his vulnerability, one cannot forget that he testified, that had this clause been mentioned in earlier negotiations he would not have accepted the offer of employment.”

In the end, Dornan was awarded special damages representing the value of lost salary and benefits for the remainder of his five-year term, as well as aggravated damages in the amount of $200,000 “for the breach of the employer’s implied obligation to act in good faith when dismissing him.”

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