U of C faces lawsuit from employee

The public affairs director of the University of Calgary’s Qatar campus filed suit again the U of C on Oct. 31. The director, Jacqueline Ryrie, is on sick leave, but expects to have her contract terminated once she is well again.

The university has a contractual obligation to ensure the health and well-being of employees are not harmed by its actions. Ryrie’s claim argues that for her, this was not the case.

Ryrie filed a statement of claim against the U of C’s board of governors, Qatar campus dean Dr. Sheila Evans and human resources director Jill Brown. All three declined to comment, saying they will wait until the case is presented to courts.

“The environment, particularly during February after the Christmas break, was an unhealthy one to say the least,” she said, attributing the lack of morale to ad hoc management decisions. “It just wasn’t a good place to work, it was a classic toxic environment.”

Ryrie tried to meet with the dean at the time, but was dismissed. She then wrote a letter to the human resources department in Calgary on behalf of all the directors in Qatar. By May 2008, the dean had resigned. Ryrie continued working on several projects for international nurses week when Evans arrived with the external relations communications senior director from Calgary to assess her performance.

“It was not a very good time for that to be happening,” said Ryrie. “Once the international nurses week was over, I was called into the dean’s office and told that I had two choices, I could take a demotion or I could resign. I was so tired out that a whole page more of accountabilities was more than I could handle and I guess I cracked.”

Ryrie went on stress leave at the end of June and travelled back to Canada for medical tests. Although she had no prior history of mental health issues, Ryrie was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder. In her absence, an interim director was hired and her colleagues were threatened with termination if they spoke to her about anything work related, she claimed.

Ryrie said that Evans wanted to continue their discussion of her employment once healthy.

“At the end of the conversation I said, ‘I’m hearing rumors that I’m not welcomed back, is that the case?’ ” said Ryrie. “She said she had to do what is best for the faculty.”

Ryrie received a letter at the beginning of August telling her to vacate her villa by Sept. 1. She contacted a lawyer to see if she could extend this deadline because she was going through painful oncology tests during her leave and wanted to wait for the results so she wouldn’t repeat them in Canada. Ryrie is a two-time cancer survivor.

Two weeks later, a welcome back party for employees was held in their villa complex for all but Ryrie. In her fragile state, she attempted suicide.

“When I came out of intestive care, my sister came out from Edmonton to take care of me and the university’s lawyer sent my lawyer another letter saying, ‘We understand that your client is in intensive care, however she needs to be out of the country by Sept. 1,’ ” said Ryrie. “This was on Aug. 26.”

After being offered a two-year contract on her initial employment, she had rented out her home in Calgary and sold her car. She is now staying with her sister in Edmonton, still on sick leave.

In the end, the university gave Ryrie until Sept. 18 to move out of her villa. In a letter dated Sept. 10, the university claimed a doctor said she was medically able to travel, but Ryrie said in the statement of claim that she was unable to find out which doctor told them this. Ryrie stayed at a hotel until October when her test results were released. She was also suffering from pneumonia at this time.

In her statement, Ryrie asks for roughly $2 million for mental suffering, loss of wages and punitive damages.

The case will likely go to court next fall, said Ryrie.

“It was just a horrible experience and completely inhumane,” she said. “It was an unbelievable disregard for me as a human being.”

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