Ex-WestJet flight attendant's #MeToo harassment lawsuit in court
'A huge win for Canadian women if we win,' says Vancouver woman leading landmark lawsuit, as airline applies for it to be tossed as 'an abuse of process of the court.'
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Vancouver resident Mandalena Lewis embarked last month on a new path as a broadcasting student at 32. But the shadow of her previous life as a WestJet flight attendant isn’t behind her yet.
That's because, next week, the class action lawsuit she's leading against the national airline is back before a judge — and the national airline is trying to have it “be struck out, in whole or in part,” WestJet’s lawyers stated, arguing the courts aren't the proper place for female employees' complaints of sexual assault and harassment.
"I got to the point where too much anger takes over," she said in an interview in her home, "and stuff that’s coming up now (with #MeToo) pertains to all the things I went through."
In 2010 Lewis was sexually assaulted by a WestJet pilot during a hotel layover in Hawaii, she alleged, and although she followed procedures — reporting the incident to the company and to Hawaiian police — her employer determined there wasn't enough evidence to determine if the assault happened, but removed the pilot from Hawaii flights where police told Lewis they had prepared charges. (The allegations haven't been tested in court).
"Their response was to remove the abilty for me to fly with the pilot," she alleged, "as opposed to removing the pilot completely from the workforce.
"But in fact, they'd known about other women who complained about sexual assault and harassment prior to my assault from the same pilot … but told them there was nothing they could do because it was her word against his and there wasn't enough evidence."
In email, a WestJet spokesperson said the company “will not comment on ongoing legal proceedings,” but said that the airline is committed to “a harassment-free workplace” and encourages “our employees to report any behaviour that may violate our policies” through WestJet’s anonymous “whistleblower hotline” or to its leadership directly.
But the airline is applying to have the lawsuit thrown out because she should have taken her sexual assault and wrongful dismissal allegations to federal human rights and provincial workers compensation agencies — not the courts.
Central to the lawsuit: WestJet's "Anti-Harassment Promise" to its staff. Her class action suit claims she and all women at WestJet expect the policy to be followed have had their contracts violated by what they're calling a broken promise in harassment and assault complaints.
"It’s a really novel claim," she said. "It will be a huge win for Canadian women if we win.
"It’ll set a precedent across the Canadian work sector for women, in that their employers are going to have to take accountability and be transparent about what happens with their sexual harassment and assault complaints."
In its application to toss the class action suit, however, WestJet countered it was "an abuse of process of the court," and relies on "allegations of activities that occurred more than two years prior to Apr. 4, 2016" when it was filed, outside the legal time limit, and asks Lewis to pay WestJet's legal costs.
But Lewis' lawyer countered that because she was fired just three months before filing her lawsuit, the breach of her and other women's contracts occured for the entire duration of their work at WestJet.
This is her lawsuit's first hearing since the explosion of the #MeToo movement, a massively shared phenomenon on social media by those who have experienced sexual assault and harassment.
She argued the phenomenon has emboldened her and women in many industries to hold their employers accountable for their stated anti-harassment policies.
“The timing of #MeToo has really helped people people in my situation,” Lewis mused in her small Vancouver apartment in an interview. “I’ve really needed a moment for women to feel comfortable coming forward and finding the solidarity of others.
“It’s a beautiful thing — it’s not for everybody — but #MeToo has definitely created a space in our time.”