A store manager and owner got into a fight over a sign. Now, a tribunal says the owner must pay $70K

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Grapevine Optical is pictured on Main Street in Oliver, B.C. The store owner has been ordered to pay his former manager over $70,000 for wages lost, and compensation for injury to her dignity as a result of discrimination, according to a tribunal decision published Wednesday. (Google Street View - image credit)
Grapevine Optical is pictured on Main Street in Oliver, B.C. The store owner has been ordered to pay his former manager over $70,000 for wages lost, and compensation for injury to her dignity as a result of discrimination, according to a tribunal decision published Wednesday. (Google Street View - image credit)

A tribunal has ruled an optical store owner in Oliver, B.C., must pay his former manager more than $70,000 after a heated argument over a sign snowballed into a workplace dispute involving several regulators.

In a decision published Wednesday, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Charles Fellnermayr, the owner of Grapevine Optical in Oliver, discriminated against former store manager Natasha Martin on the basis of her marriage.

Martin had brought her human rights complaint forward in August 2019 after being laid off from her job on July 10 that year.

It was a month after her husband, Kyle, had been fired from the same store, following a heated exchange outside the store between him and Fellnermayr.

Google Street View
Google Street View

That single argument led to work relations deteriorating between owner and manager, and the eventual layoff — something the tribunal directly attributes to Fellnermayr's negative opinion of the Martins' marriage, which is illegal under B.C.'s human rights code.

Numerous regulatory complaints, including to WorkSafeBC, ensued in the months after the firing.

The Employment Standards Branch had previously ordered Fellnermayr to pay Martin $5,500 for severance — something the tribunal notes he has still not done.

He now has to pay her $71,081, plus other fees, after being found guilty of discrimination.

The optometrist and the sign

Natasha Martin, a trained optician, had been working at the store since 2008, and her husband had been hired in 2016 after she said she had an increasingly heavy workload.

Tribunal documents say Natasha Martin was tasked with operating the business while Fellnermayr was away, which Fellnermayr estimated "to be about 75 per cent of the time".

On June 10, 2019, the tribunal says Natasha overheard optometrist Dr. Michael Kwasnek, who also worked at the store, asking Fellnermayr for his name to be placed at the top of a store sign, which showed a list of the doctors working there.

 

Natasha allegedly had not been made aware of the potential change to the sign and "interjected" in the conversation, leading to an argument.

"[Martin] reminded Mr. Fellnermayr that she was the store manager and needed to be kept in the loop. This was a tense exchange," tribunal member Devyn Cousineau said in her decision.

"Dr. Kwasnek and Mr. Fellnermayr say that Mrs. Martin ended it by saying, 'Just remember Chuck — s--t runs downhill.'"

Heated public argument

The tension between Martin and Fellnermayr carried over to the end of the day. The owner did not respond when his manager said "goodbye" when she left, according to the tribunal.

This led to Kyle Martin sarcastically quipping, "Awesome, Chuck," at Fellnermayr before he and his wife left the store.

Fellnermayr followed them and a war of words ensued between the two men on the street.

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Kyle Martin allegedly said "Hit me! Hit me!" and "I'll sue your ass off!" according to a passerby quoted by the tribunal. Fellnermayr allegedly said, "I'll bury you six feet underground."

The tribunal states Natasha Martin eventually separated the men and the couple left.

"OMG!!! We were changing a sign. How did that get so wild and crazy?" reads a text submission from Fellnermayr, which was viewed by the tribunal.

Numerous complaints

Kyle Martin never returned to work at Grapevine Optical. He subsequently filed a complaint with WorkSafeBC, according to the tribunal, alleging bullying and harassment.

Natasha Martin said at a hearing that her husband's complaint, which eventually led to a workplace inspection and recommendations that the store develop an anti-bullying policy, made her feel more anxious at work.

At a meeting on July 10, 2019, Fellnermayr told Martin he would be taking over operations. Martin asked to be laid off so she could apply for employment insurance (EI), according to the tribunal.

But after she received her record of employment — a document necessary to apply for benefits and further employment — she was "horrified" to discover it stated she had quit, which would have left her ineligible for EI.

Subsequent emails to Fellnermayr were not answered, according to the tribunal, with the owner saying this was because "in his mind, Mrs. Martin was a 'big fat liar' and the conversation would go in circles."

The Employment Standards Branch subsequently ruled that Martin was eligible for $5,500 in severance, and that she was laid off instead of quit, but Fellnermayr did not pay up, according to the tribunal.

Fellnermayr unsuccessfully applied to dismiss Martin's complaint, saying the couple were on a "crusade to reverse discriminate" against him.

"I don't know — they go home, they talk, they start to plot. I can only speculate that something like that may have occurred," he told the tribunal.

Fellnermayr alleged he let Martin go due to reasons of unprofessionalism. However, Cousineau found that the sign argument and its aftermath directly led to the firing.

"In my view, the factor that pushed Mr. Fellnermayr to take this extreme step was that he perceived he could no longer trust Mrs. Martin because of what had happened with her husband and the subsequent decline in their relationship," Cousineau said in her decision.

"This perception was not based on Mrs. Martin's behaviour at work in the month after the incident, but arose because of her relationship with her husband."

Section 13 of the B.C. Human Rights Code forbids discrimination based on protected characteristics, including marital status. The tribunal found Grapevine and Fellnermayr to be in contravention of the code in this incident.

Grapevine now has a policy against hiring spouses after the incident.

CBC News reached out to both Fellnermayr and Martin for this story.

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