Judge tosses defamation case, but slams city hall

A case of ‘mutual pugnacity triumphing over common sense’

A consultant for community centre associations at odds with Vancouver Park Board lost his defamation lawsuit against the City of Vancouver and an employee on Feb. 3. But a B.C. Supreme Court judge refused to award damages, calling it a case of “mutual pugnacity triumphing over common sense.”

Justice Nigel Kent said the “needless lawsuit,” which took 12 days of court time, could have been avoided had city hall given Stewart Jordan “the simple courtesy of a carefully crafted reply to his requests for information.”

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The case stemmed from a Sept. 12, 2013 incident at the Sunset Community Centre office where Jordan made a remark about recreation programmer Marina Ribatto’s bikini and tan. Ribatto, a 35-year employee, complained to a superior that Jordan touched her under an arm, close to her breast area, with the tip of one finger.

Wrote Kent: “While there is dispute about the precise comments and whether the pointing resulted in any physical contact with Ms. Ribatto, Mr. Jordan acknowledges in hindsight that the pointing was ‘inappropriate’ and ‘rude.’”

Kent wrote that the case was triggered by a breach of confidence by Yukka Vuorma, a Sunset employee and longtime friend of Jordan. Ribatto had confided in Vuorma, who later spoke to Jordan.

“In doing so he mistakenly and inaccurately told Mr. Jordan that Ms. Ribatto was accusing him of touching her breast,” Kent wrote. “He also likely informed Mr. Jordan that Ms. Ribatto was close to tears at the time. This, in turn, triggered Mr. Jordan's outraged and misplaced pursuit for exoneration and led to his inaccurate belief that a false accusation of inappropriate sexual touching had been made.”

The trial heard testimony from 10 witnesses, including director of recreation Thomas Soulliere and human resources general manager Paul Mochrie. Kent found that Ribatto’s statements were protected by truth and qualified privilege. Neither Ribatto nor Soulliere were driven by malice, he ruled.

Kent called Jordan’s pleadings “completely muddled,” but the verdict scolded city hall’s legal and Freedom of Information departments.

Jordan’s lawyer received no reply to his two fall 2013 letters seeking details of the allegations. That, Kent wrote, was arguably a breach of the Code of Professional Conduct that governs B.C. lawyers, “which not only mandates courtesy but also reasonably prompt answers to all professional letters from other lawyers.”

The city hall FOI office was “nothing short of insulting” in its reply to Jordan’s February 2014 request: copies of Jordan’s own correspondence and blank pages of censored information. Kent also wrote that the FOI reply inaccurately said surveillance video that would have captured the incident was on a seven-day loop and unavailable. The trial heard evidence that the footage had been retained 14 days before being taped over.

“The city representatives were well aware of this and, indeed, had a copy of the video in question preserved by an outside contractor,” Kent wrote. “Yet that video, which could very well have been helpful evidence in this case, was lost. Whether this was simply ineptitude or by design is not entirely clear.”

Kent did leave the door open for the city to apply for costs. Acting city manager Sadhu Johnston referred a Courier request for comment to the communications department. Spokesman Tobin Postma said the city was reviewing the reasons for the judgment and "will be considering whether it will seek costs in this matter."

Jordan, 64, had worked at five community centres since 1967. He became a manager in the early 2000s, but retired in 2010. He later advised six associations that resisted the OneCard rollout and other revenue-diverting measures imposed by Vision Vancouver and then-city manager Penny Ballem.

@bobmackin

bob@bobmackin.ca

Note: this story has been updated since first posted.

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