Responding to a civil suit filed by the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) earlier this year, former UTSU executive director Sandra Hudson has filed a statement of defence and counterclaim with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice seeking $300,000 in damages from the union.
Statement of defence
On November 19, Hudson filed a statement of defence through her lawyers which offers an alternative narrative of events leading up to her departure from the union in April. Hudson denies a number of the union’s allegations, including the claim that she “conspired to commit civil fraud.” Former UTSU president Yolen Bollo-Kamara and vice president internal & services Cameron Wathey were also named in the UTSU’s suit and have filed separate statements of defence.
The defence goes on to claim that, although Hudson had never filed for overtime in two-and-a-half years of employment, she did frequently work long hours on “non-managerial tasks,” and had accrued a significant amount of overtime between 2012 and April 2015. Examples of this type of work includes “assisting at polling stations, closing the cash registers at the UTSU office, and completing minutes from various Boards and committee meetings.”
In her statement, Hudson alleges that during the negotiation of her employment agreement she was advised by then UTSU vice president internal & services, Corey Scott, that it was the union’s practice to pay out overtime to its executive directors.
In addition to addressing Hudson’s overtime, the defence alleges that, during her tenure as executive director, Hudson was “subject to inappropriate conduct and unwelcome comments from UTSU directors. Some of the comments were in relation to Hudson’s perceived sexual orientation, gender and race.”
It is also alleged that Hudson brought these concerns to Bollo-Kamara and Wathey on various occasions.
The defence further details how, by the spring of 2015, Hudson and UTSU Arts and Science at-large director Nicholas Grant developed a fraught relationship. Hudson alleges that Grant had accused her of being upset with him for his decision to run in the upcoming UTSU election with the Brighter UofT slate, and that he had also made remarks calling her job performance into question.
Around April of last year, the statement claims that a conversation between Grant and Wathey took place during which Grant allegedly told Wathey that members of the incoming Brighter UofT slate, including current UTSU president Ben Coleman, had a plan “to treat Hudson harshly,” before terminating her employment the following September in order “to humiliate her.”
According to an email statement sent to The Varsity, Grant alleges that “no such conversation ever occurred, and no such plan ever existed.” In relation to the friction caused by his choice to run with the Brighter UofT slate, Grant commented that “Wathey explicitly told [Grant] of her disappointment on the day that nominations had opened, among other things, in an attempt to persuade me to run with [the Change UofT slate].”
Regarding Hudson’s allegation that he had cast aspersion on her work performance, Grant said the following: “At no point did I personally make comments on my views of her work performance to anyone beyond Wathey and Bollo-Kamara, the only two individuals she reported to, and this was only to address concerns brought forward by other members of the Union.”
According to Grant, he received complaints about Hudson while he was chair of the Executive Review Committee, He stated that, “complaints had been brought forward to the Executive Review Committee, of which [he] was the chair. Unfortunately, directors are given little to no formal training on dealing with complaints brought forward this way, and when I raised these concerns to each [of] Wathey and Bollo-Kamara individually and several times, neither of them were willing to investigate or address the complaints brought forward by other students. It was only after their lack of action that I made a public statement regarding how these concerns existed and were not being addressed, because I believed that the board ought to be informed.”
In an emailed statement to The Varsity, current UTSU president Ben Coleman addressed the allegations made in Hudson’s statement of defence. “We had always intended to work with Sandy — we knew her experience would be valuable, especially for long-term projects like the student commons. There was no conspiracy to humiliate her,” he said.
According to the defence, Hudson considered this revelation as “constructive dismissal” and informed Wathey that she intended to file a human rights complaint. It was at this point that Wathey suggested Hudson enter into a termination agreement with the union — an official conclusion of her employment that would entitle her to severance pay and preempt her removal by the incoming union executive — “to avoid further strife.”
Initially, Hudson was unwilling, but she changed her mind following a series of other negative interactions with UTSU directors, including an alleged incident during which Coleman suggested he “was able to tell [Hudson] and Bollo-Kamara (who are both Black women) apart, because Bollo-Kamara wore lipstick.”
“When you screw up like I did with the lipstick comment, I think it’s important to apologize and learn. Sandy and I had had a private conversation about her frustrations with people confusing her and Yolen, in which I commented that it was especially ridiculous given that their senses of style were totally different. Yolen then posted publicly about it, which is when I realized my remark had come across completely differently than I intended,” Coleman responded to The Varsity. “At my request, Yolen and I met so I could give her a full apology. I proactively set up a meeting with Sandy in April so that I could give her the opportunity to air any concerns she had, and show my desire to prevent microaggressions. I made a concentrated effort for Sandy to feel comfortable working with us, as I knew she had been close to Yolen and Cameron,” he explained.
The termination agreement was made effective on April 30 and it entitled Hudson to: payments comprised of two weeks salary in lieu of notice of termination, two years salary as severance; compensation for five weeks vacation; and compensation for overtime. The agreement also included a non-disparagement clause which bars the UTSU from making derogatory statements about Hudson, as well as a confidentiality clause and mutual release.
UTSU’s initial claim
The UTSU’s initial statement of claim, which was submitted on September 21, alleges that Hudson entered into a termination agreement with former union president Yolen Bollo-Kamara and vice president internal & services, Cameron Wathey, concluding Hudson’s employment as the UTSU’s executive director. Pursuant to the agreement, Hudson was entitled to $247,726.40 in compensation upon her dismissal – a severance figure equivalent to roughly 10 per cent of the union’s operating budget.
The union contends that entering into this agreement represented a breach of “their fiduciary duty.” Their statement of claim alleges that Hudson, Bollo-Kamara, and Wathey “acted in a manner that was oppressive, unfairly prejudicial to and unfairly disregarded the interest of the UTSU and its members,” as well as that they “conspired to commit civil fraud” and that their actions “constituted civil fraud.”
The UTSU’s claim also alleges that, between January and April of 2015, Bollo-Kamara authorized a sum of $29,782.22 in cheques “for a total of 2,589.5 hours of overtime.”
The statement of claim suggests that in her two-and-a-half years as the UTSU’s executive director, Hudson had never recorded any overtime hours until April of 2015.
Included with the statement of defence filed on November 19, Hudson also filed a counterclaim against the UTSU. The counterclaim seeks $300,000 in damages from the union, as well as a declaration that both the non-disparagement and confidentiality clauses of the termination agreement were breached.
The claim alleges that the UTSU violated the non-disparagement and confidentiality clauses by failing to seek a sealing order — which would have restricted access to information pertaining to the suit — and filing suit before Hudson had an opportunity to procure one. Hudson also claims that the UTSU further violated these clauses when it provided The Varsity with copies of their statement of claim, and when Coleman made statements to the media.
On this claim, Coleman offered the following: “In our statements to the media and students, we’ve emphasized that this is about students’ money, and the ability to have a students’ union that has adequate resources, not about any one person or their character. We’ve also emphasized that we’d like a resolution through mediation or arbitration. We want to resolve this with the least hardship and distress for everyone involved in this situation, and that hasn’t changed.”
Hudson’s defence claims that these acts were undertaken “maliciously and in bad faith” in order to ensure publication and undermine the non-disparagement clauses of the termination agreement.
It remains unclear at this point whether or not the two parties will ultimately go to trial or resolve the issue privately. Neither Hudson, nor the UTSU’s lawyers, responded to immediate requests for comment.
This article originally appeared on The Varsity’s website on December 11, 2015.