Two employees of the organization in charge of public housing in Halifax are suing, alleging senior management attempted to “defame, gaslight and vilify” them in response to a shooting that happened while they were working in 2020.
The employees are Jason Ashley and Gareth Boudreau. Lawyer Douglas Lutz filed notice of action on their behalf in Kentville Supreme Court on Jan. 5.
Lutz named the provincial government, Jamie Vigliarolo, Jane Clark, Mark Pace, Curtis Coward, Bob Driscoll, Sandra LaForge, and Ed Lake as defendants.
None of the defendants has filed a defence and the allegations in the attached statement of claim have not been tested in court.
Ashley and Boudreau worked for the Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority (MRHA) on Oct. 30, 2020. Management sent them to do maintenance work on public housing in Halifax that day.
“While performing that work there was a criminal ‘active shooting’ of a firearm close to the work site. Jason and Gareth were nearby and witnessed the shooting. They feared for their safety and fled from the location in their vehicle,” Lutz wrote in the statement of claim.
“Following the shooting the Plaintiffs returned to the offices of MRHA where they were told by Jane Clark, Property Manager, and Mark Pace, Maintenance Supervisor, that a shooting or an event similar to it had been expected by MRHA. Jason and Gareth had not been advised or warned about the likelihood of such an event before they were sent to the work site.”
Police ‘confirmed a shooting had taken place’
In the Halifax Regional Police watch commander’s report to media that evening, police said they were investigating the shooting.
“At 4:14 p.m., Halifax Regional Police responded to a report of possible gun shots in the 3000 block of Romans Avenue, Halifax. Multiple officers responded and confirmed a shooting had taken place. No one was injured and there [is] no suspect information at this time,” the watch commander wrote.
The government’s Bayers Westwood public housing community is in the 3000 block of Romans Avenue.
Lutz alleges Bob Driscoll, operations manager at MRHA, saw news reports about the shooting. Clark contacted HRP and “distributed details of the police investigation by email on November 3, 2020, to MRHA management, including Curtis Coward, Bob Driscoll, Mark Pace, Jamie Vigliarolo, Sandra LaForge and Ed Lake.”
“The shooting was between two vehicles,” Clark reported, and the occupants were known to each other. Clark wrote in another email, “The shots that were fired took place on the street. The shell casings were found on the street and lawn area and there were drugs found next to the casings.”
In December, Clark said HRP told her Ashley and Boudreau were the only witnesses, and they couldn’t find the shooter. HRP later told Clark they were closing the investigation.
Managers deny shooting ever happened
The plaintiffs allege their managers started to deny it ever happened.
“On receipt of the email from HRP Jane Clark sent an email to Bob Driscoll, Curtis Coward and Mark Pace which stated that HRP had told her that ‘…there was no supporting evidence of shots fired that day in the community,’” Lutz wrote.
“Jane Clark’s email deliberately misrepresented the content of HRP’s communication to state that HRP were questioning the version of events described by Jason and Gareth. Following receipt of Jane Clark’s December 8 email, communications circulating within MRHA, particulars of which are in the sole knowledge of the Defendants, questioned the truth of the statements made by the Plaintiffs. Some or all of the individual Defendants spread the idea through MRHA that Jason and Gareth were untruthful and had ‘made up’ the story of the shooting.”
Sandra LaForge, human resources director, referred to the incident as an “alleged shooting” in conversations, the plaintiffs claim.
MRHA senior management “pursued a deliberate course of conduct to gaslight and vilify the Plaintiffs and to cast doubt on the Plaintiffs’ credibility and veracity, encouraging the notion within MRHA that the shooting had not, in fact, occurred,” Lutz wrote.
“Housing, its servants and agents, began actively pursuing a strategy to discount Jason and Gareth’s accounts of the shooting and began repeatedly denying internally that a shooting witnessed by the Plaintiffs had taken place.”
Director named in AG report said shooting ‘did not occur’
In January 2021, Jamie Vigliarolo, MRHA director, appeared at the Joint Occupational Health and Safety (JOHS) Committee. The plaintiffs claim he told the committee the shooting “did not occur,” and he repeated that statement at the next month’s meeting and in an email in March.
Vigliarolo was the subject of Tuesday’s auditor general report. That report found the former director in numerous conflicts of interest related to his private rental properties and the awarding of more than $1 million in government contracts.
The plaintiffs say Vigliarolo’s statements in 2021 were false and defamatory.
“His words meant, and were understood to mean, that the Plaintiffs were liars, that the shooting which they had witnessed had not occurred and that the Plaintiffs were fabricating symptoms of PTSD and trauma-induced stress and anxiety,” Lutz wrote.
In April, Ed Lake, Housing Nova Scotia’s executive director of housing authorities, walked back Vigliarolo’s statements.
“I would like to acknowledge your concerns and reassure you that Metro Regional Housing Authority is by no means questioning whether the incident has occurred,” Lake wrote in an email to Ashley.
But Vigliarolo persisted until August 2021. He then admitted to Ashley “in a private meeting that the shooting had, in fact, taken place.”
MRHA did nothing to correct the record among its employees, the plaintiffs claim.
‘A concerted effort to defame, gaslight and vilify’
“By January 21, 2021, following the JOHS Committee meeting, it was apparent to Jason and Gareth that their managers and co-workers believed the shooting to be a fabrication. They experienced emotional and psychological stress and feelings of betrayal resulting from the statements and actions of their employer, and of their co-workers, all of which were cultivated and encouraged by the acts or omissions of MRHA management,” Lutz wrote.
MRHA commissioned an independent investigation into the incident, which the plaintiffs claim confirmed their statements. But still, management did nothing to correct the internal record.
“Commencing in December, 2020 the Defendants made a concerted effort to defame, gaslight and vilify Jason and Gareth in order to cast doubt on their credibility and to cover up MRHA’s culpability in exposing the Plaintiffs to the shooting,” Lutz wrote.
“The acts and omissions of MRHA in defaming the Plaintiffs, gaslighting and vilifying the Plaintiffs, were intentional, high handed, reprehensible, callous, and deserving of an award of punitive, aggravated and exemplary damages.”
The plaintiffs claim the defendants “are liable for defamation and negligent or intentional infliction of mental suffering, and institutional betrayal.” Along with the allegations listed above, the plaintiffs claim MRHA threatened to cut off Boudreau’s workers compensation benefits “because he was alleged to be working in Calgary,” and continued to assign the plaintiffs work “near to the site of the shooting during their period of gradual return to work when they knew or ought to have known that such exposure would retraumatize and victimize” them.
Ashley and Boudreau are seeking “non-pecuniary,” “pecuniary,” “punitive,” and “exemplary” damages, plus costs.