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Fired North Okanagan seniors home manager wins first round of human rights case

Heaton Place Retirement Community in Armstrong.
Image Credit: FACEBOOK: Heaton Place Retirement Community

A North Okanagan seniors complex that fired its manager while she was on medical leave has lost the first round of a BC Human Rights Tribunal.

According to a May 4 BC Human Rights Tribunal decision, Heaton Place Retirement Community manager Penny Christensen was fired by Vernon Miller and Cindy Makarenko while she was on medical leave in 2019.

Christensen argues she was fired because she went on medical leave while Miller and Makarenko strongly deny the allegation and say Christensen was fired because she was a poor-performing employee.

"Much of the background to this complaint is either unclear or vigorously disputed," the Tribunal said in the decision.

The decision says Christensen had worked at the independent living retirement in Armstrong for five years when in the summer of 2019 she went on sick leave.

Christensen says she was a good employee, working a difficult job and suffered from mental health issues which arose, "at least in part", from dealing with the deaths of residents at the retirement home.

She says she was having a hard time dealing with the death of several residents and "begged" Makarenko to provide counselling for her and other staff members affected by the deaths of residents at Heaton Place.

Prior to going on medical leave Christensen said she received emails from Miller and Makarenko that amounted to "harassment and bullying" and caused her to have a "nervous breakdown."

The decision says that while on medical leave Christensen contacted her medical benefits company and asked for forms to apply for short-term or long-term disability benefits.

In the decision, she alleges that Miller and Makarenko knew this and sent her an email terminating her employment and offering her an additional payment if she signed a "Full and Final Release" document.

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Miller and Makarenko have very different versions of events.

They state that Christensen was underperforming in her job and list more than a dozen issues with her employment, from her spending time internet shopping to failing to train her executive assistant.

Miller and Makarenko said they did not know that Christensen was suffering from a disability that required accommodations and applied to the Tribunal to have the case thrown out.

In the decision, they also deny Christensen has a disability.

"They acknowledge she provided them with the two medical notes, but 'expressly deny' her 'alleged disability,' and argue that she 'fails to prove that she has a real or perceived disability,'" the decision reads.

They say Christensen went on sick leave after being asked about her poor work performance and being made aware she was about to be fired.

However, the Tribunal points out that they don't address the two medical notes that they received and make a "bare assertion" about why Christensen went on sick leave.

The Tribunal says that the two parties "diverge significantly" on their versions of what took place, but even Miller and Makarenko's own evidence contains "inconsistencies" that it cannot resolve.

READ MORE: Salmon Arm worker wins first round of human rights case over injury

Ultimately, the Tribunal refuses to dismiss the case and orders that the matter go to a Tribunal hearing.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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