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Law Firms and Drinking Functions

Law firms that hold office parties and provide free alcohol to employees are asking for trouble these days.   A labour law firm was in the news, and not in a good way, recently.   Mathews Dinsdale Clark is one of the leading employer-side firms in the country, with many of our best labour lawyers.  It hosts a student labour law moot each year and then takes out the participants for dinner and drinks with some of the associates and partners.   At the 2009 event, the dinner moved on to a club and some of the lawyers apparently had too much to drink.   A couple of law suits resulted, including a defamation action by one of the firms’ partners against two of the firm’s junior lawyers for allegedly making false allegations about the partner’s conduct at the event.  That story is reviewed in this National Post piece form last summer. I have no idea what the truth is, but obviously what transpired that night is in dispute.  None of the three lawyers involved in the dispute are still at Mathews Dinsdale, so this fiasco has obviously not been good business for the firm.

That story was back in on the front page of the Toronto Star last  week because one of the junior lawyers who was named in the defamation lawsuit filed by the partner has just filed a $1.3 million wrongful dismissal lawsuit against Mathews Dinsdale.  Here is the story from the Law Times last week.  The ex-Mathews Dinsdale lawyer alleges that after he provided a statement on the events surrounding the night of drinking, he was shut out of work, ostracized, and forced to leave the firm.  So this is a constructive dismissal lawsuit, for my students.  He was not “fired”, but he alleges the employer stopped giving him work to leave him with no choice but to quit.  The law firm denies this allegation.  The lawyer who filed the lawsuit is now working at another Toronto employer side law firm, Sherrard Kuzz.  One of his claims in the lawsuit is that the law firm violated Section 8 of the Human Rights Code by punishing him for making a complaint under the firm’s harassment policy.

While there are disputes about the facts in this case that only a trial could sort out (and I doubt very much this will ever make it to trial), one thing is very clear:  none of this would have happened if not for a night of firm sponsored drinking and partying.   Lots of companies and law firms host events like this.  It is becoming more common for employees to sue their employers for damages incurred relating to firm events at which too much drinking takes place.  What should your company do about this?

Well, Courts have told us that employers must be proactive, monitor drinking, ensure no drunk people are served and be absolutely certain that no intoxicated people leave the party and drive home.  If I were running a business, I’d distribute two free drink chits to employees and require anything after that to be paid, for starters, because I have seen people who would never drink more than two drinks put back 4 or 5 at an open bar.  And always make sure there are taxi chits available for free to employees.

What other steps do you take, all you HR folks out there?

Here is an interesting radio discussion about how companies and firms should manage firm functions involving alcohol with Steven Shamie, a senior lawyer at another of the country’s top employer-side labour law firms, Hicks Morley.

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