Two years have passed since the beginning of a legal dispute between the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) and a former executive of the union.On December 1, 2014, Walter Callaghan, who had served five months as the UTGSU’s Academics and Funding Commissioner for Divisions 1 & 2, filed a lawsuit against the UTGSU and all the members of the union’s executive committee at the time.Callaghan is seeking a total of $100,000 in damages, plus $25,000 towards a charitable donation for an organization that supports soldiers and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.In addition to the union, the defendants are former Academics and Funding Commissioner for Divisions 3 & 4 Hussain Masoom, former Finance and University Governance Commissioner Soaleha Shams, former Civics and Environment Commissioner Susanne Waldorf, former Internal Commissioner Nickie van Lier, and former Member-at-large Kavita Siewrattan. Siewrattan is currently the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union’s Executive Director.In his Statement of Claim, Callaghan alleges that the defendants had a “hostility” towards his mental health concerns. Callaghan is a Canadian Armed Forces veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and receives a Permanent Impairment Allowance from Veterans Affairs.Callaghan alleges that when he requested that mental health issues be a “top priority” for the Executive Committee’s “Planning & Visioning Day,” Masoom, van Lier, and Shams insisted that mental health issues be downgraded to a “secondary priority.”The Statement of Claim also states that Callaghan frequently sparred with the defendants over disagreements relating to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). Callaghan spoke against a policy at the CFS General Meeting in June 2014, arguing that it “could have the effect of supporting involuntary institutionalization and criminalization of persons with mental health issues.” Masoom and van Lier allegedly told Callaghan that he was overreacting and blamed his “personal issues.”Callaghan also chaired the UTGSU litigation committee. During that time the union was in the midst of a lawsuit against the CFS. Callaghan’s Statement of Claim says that the majority of the defendants had a desire to end the lawsuit and allegedly saw Callaghan as an “obstacle to ending the litigation.”It also alleges that Shams accused Callaghan of “being too unstable to perform his duties and suggested he should increase his medication.” Shams is also accused of calling Callaghan’s mental health issues “unprofessional.”Finally, the Statement of Claim alleges that the defendants pursued “a secret complaint process” against Callaghan.“The defendants, or some combination of them, privately encouraged a group of UTGSU staff to file a grievance against Mr. Callaghan,” reads a portion of the statement. “They pursued this strategy in secret, and with the intention of removing Mr. Callaghan as a political obstacle. The defendants conducted the grievance process without any regard for procedural or substantive fairness.”Citing mental distress and a relapse, Callaghan resigned from his position on October 28, 2014.The defendants filed a 21-page Statement of Defence in January 2015, denying the allegations made by Callaghan in his Statement of Claim. They also say that Siewrattan took office on October 1, 2014, and was not in office at the time of nearly all of Callaghan’s allegations.The defendants say that Callaghan was never discriminated against and was given ample accommodation. They also say that Masoom and van Lier never objected to making mental health issues a “top priority.”With regards to the policy at the CFS meeting, the Statement of Defence says that van Lier “encouraged Callaghan to publicly share his views on the CFS amendment and the group,” and the executive “supported him fully.”The defendants also say that Callaghan never complained to the UTGSU General Council and allege that Callaghan has harassed and bullied some of the defendants.They allege that Callaghan was “intolerant and aggressive towards his colleague Shams who had openly disclosed her mental health issues to him,” and Callaghan’s “militarized references and aggressive language or gestures” gave her anxiety.Callaghan also allegedly publicly referred to Shams as “Kool-Aid Kid,” “imbecile,” “dumb as shit,” and “puppet.” The Statement of Defence alleges that his hostility towards Shams at one point caused Shams to suffer a panic attack.Callaghan is also accused of discriminating and harassing Masoom, allegedly calling him a “suicide bomber” due to his Muslim faith. He is also alleged to have made other Islamophobic statements.The Statement of Defense also calls Callaghan’s allegations of a secret grievance from UTGSU staff “both shocking and absurd” and says that there were complaints filed by staff members, calling his attitude towards staff “demeaning and aggressive.”The defendants deny any political motivation behind grievances filed by CUPE Local 1281, the union representing UTGSU employees. They allege that they attempted to set up an interview with Callaghan, but he did not respond to emails and “ultimately refused to participate in the investigation process.” They also note that Callaghan resigned on his own accord.The Statement of Defence also includes a counterclaim filed by Shams and Masoom against Callaghan. Shams and Masoom are seeking $50,000 in damages for mental distress.Callaghan filed a Reply and Defence to the Counterclaim 11 days after the counterclaim was filed.According to Callaghan’s defense, the allegations that Callaghan made “aggressive” comments are “mischaracterized, grossly exaggerated, and taken out of context,” and he denied making any physical threats.Callaghan also claims that Shams did not disclose the fact that she was suffering from mental health issues and that the names that he is alleged to have called Shams were never used publicly, with the exception of “puppet.” The reply also says that Callaghan did not intend to cause Masoom any distress and the comments were made in private.Callaghan maintains that the defendants disparaged his mental health condition and pursued the grievance against him without regards to his health. His reply says that the Counterclaim is “false, vindictive, politically-motivated, and deserves the Court’s censure.”The UTGSU budgeted $150,000 for the New Litigation Fund, to be used for legal expenses for this lawsuit. According to the union’s audited financial statements for the 2015–2016 year, it has spent $64,004 as of August 31, 2016.Suzanne Narain, who is the UTGSU’s current Civics and Environmental Commissioner and a member of the Defense Committee, declined to comment “out of respect for all parties and the proceedings.” None of the other parties in the case could be reached for comment.The UTGSU’s annual general meeting is on December 6 at 6:00 pm.
Published: 4:10 am, 5 December 2016
Modified: 1:07 pm, 6 December 2016