News / Vancouver

FreshSlice Pizza owner had affair with employee before she was fired, judge rules

The owner of the FreshSlice Pizza chain had a sexual affair with a district manager before she was fired from her job, a B.C. Supreme Court judge recently ruled.

Ray Russell, the 49-year-old owner and CEO of FreshSlice, denied having an extra-marital affair with Faranak Shirbigi, whom Russell claimed quit her job after she was told she was being demoted to store manager.

Shirbigi, 40, was promoted in January 2010 to the position of district manager, supervising 16 FreshSlice franchise outlets in the Lower Mainland. FreshSlice now has 70 stores in the Lower Mainland and six in Toronto.

The court was told Shirbigi had voiced concerns that the salary of her three-year contract -- $40,000 in 2010, rising to $45,000 in 2011 and $50,000 by 2012 – was being eroded by having to pay her own car fuel costs as the number of outlets quickly expanded to 23, causing her to drive 15,000 kilometres in a six-month period.

Privately, Shirbigi complained she could be making more money as the manager of a single FreshSlice store, but testified she never asked to be moved to a store manager position and was shocked and upset when Russell told her in February 2011 that she was being demoted.

Shirbigi never showed up to work as a Surrey store manager a month later. She claimed wrongful dismissal, feeling she was removed from FreshSlice's head office in Burnaby after Russell's wife, who also worked at head office, became suspicious about the relationship between her husband and Shirbigi.

Shirbigi testified that right after she was promoted to district manager, Russell sent her an e-mail congratulating her and suggesting they meet for coffee, brunch or a hike on Sunday, his only day off. At the time, Russell was married and his wife was on maternity leave from her job at head office.

Shirbigi said she agreed to do the Grouse Grind with Russell, but when he came to pick her up they stayed at her apartment, watched a movie and had sex. Their sexual relationship continued until September 2010, she said.

Shirbigi said in February 2010, she moved to a rent-free apartment owned by Russell, in a building where Russell’s mother lived so it would not arouse suspicion if his car were seen at the building.

Three months later, Russell’s wife became suspicious that her husband was having an affair when she encountered Shirbigi at the airport as an arriving passenger at the same time Russell was arriving from a business trip to Toronto.

Shirbigi testified that in May 2010 she spent a romantic weekend with Russell at his Toronto apartment, where they had sex, dined out and visited Niagara Falls.

On June 28, 2010, Shirbigi sent an e-mail to Russell's wife to reassure her that she had no sexual interest in her husband. Shirbigi testified she wrote this e-mail at Russell’s request.

Russell told the court that Shirbigi’s evidence of an extra-marital affair with him was a complete fabrication, but he agreed Shirbigi was a friend he spent time with and that she had lived rent-free in an apartment he owns in the building where his mother lives. He said he had a generous nature.

He also agreed that Shirbigi shared his Toronto apartment with him for a weekend, and that they went to Niagara Falls together. But they slept in separate bedrooms, he said, as other employees had done.

Russell said he kept these facts from everyone, including his wife, at Shirbigi’s request because the conservative Muslim community to which they both belonged would probably misconstrue it.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lance Bernard rejected Russell's denials of an extra-marital affair, finding Russell initiated a sexual relationship with Shirbigi shortly after she was promoted to district manager.

“Unfortunately, it is also likely that Ms. Shirbigi’s presence in the head office was awkward for Mr. Russell, given their sexual history and his wife’s return to work,” the judge said.

The judge found that Shirbigi was terminated without cause, so she was entitled to damages of $39,098, plus interest and court costs. The judgment is online here.

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