Kenney’s office denies ‘poisoned work environment’ in legal dispute with former legislature staffer

The premier’s office in Alberta is denying a former employee was subjected to a “poisoned work environment,” and is asking for her lawsuit to be dismissed, according to a statement of defence obtained by CTV News.

The document, filed in an Edmonton court on Monday by lawyer Vicki Giles, says plaintiff Ariella Kimmel was fired without cause because the minister she was assigned to no longer wanted to work with her.

It says Doug Schweitzer asked for Kimmel to be replaced as his chief of staff “on several occasions,” because he wanted his former chief of staff back.

Schweitzer refused to elaborate on why when asked by CTV News Edmonton on Thursday, saying he couldn’t comment because of the court proceedings.

The statement claims there was “no other role was available” for Kimmel, so she was terminated.

Kimmel has claimed she witnessed sexual harrasment, was subject to verbal abuse, and was fired for raising those concerns to officials in Jason Kenney’s office.

The statement of defence does not name Kenney at all, and says Kimmel’s lawsuit is technically against the Queen, as represented by the premier’s chief of staff.

Kimmel said she witnessed excessive drinking in the legislature involving a former minister.

When she confronted Devin Dreeshen about that, she alleges he “angrily confronted” her about the situation and “aggressively yelled at her” until she was in tears.

“The plaintiff felt shaken and scared during this encounter,” her lawsuit says.

Dreeshen resigned from cabinet in November, but remained a UCP MLA.

“I accept that my personal conduct with regards to alcohol has become an issue for the government as a whole,” Dreeshen wrote at the time.

In the defence statement, Giles argued that if the incident did happen, it wasn’t work related.

“If the Alleged Incident did occur, it was a disagreement between the Plaintiff and Mr. Dreeshen, with whom the Plaintiff was admittedly involved in a personal relationship. Further, the Plaintiff was not acting within the scope of her employment at the time the Alleged Incident occurred,” the document said.

In her lawsuit, Kimmel is seeking $199,233 (the balance she claims is owed to her for her term of employment), $100,000 in moral damages and $100,000 in punitive damages.

She is also seeking a declaration that she was wrongfully terminated along with costs of the legal action.

Giles argues Kimmel’s employment contract allowed the premier’s office to terminate her without cause, and she is only entitled to $29,541 because of that agreement.

The defence said Kimmel found another job and the premier’s office did not cause her “mental distress, embarrassment or reputational harm.”

Giles said the legislature has policies in place to protect employees, and respect in the workplace training was made mandatory.

“At all material times the Defendant maintained clear workplace policies and procedures regarding harassment and respect in the workplace,” the statement said.

Kimmel also alleged that Ivan Bernardo, who was the principal secretary to then-Minister of Health Tyler Shandro, make a sexually inappropriate comment to one of her staff members

“If the Alleged Comment was made, the incident was resolved to the satisfaction of the individual to whom the comment was directed insofar as is known to the Defendant,” the statement said.

Giles also alleges that Kimmel “engaged in inappropriate and disrespectful behaviour towards scheduling staff, the Director of Talent, and other members of the Premier’s Office Staff and department officials,” during her employment.

Kimmel’s lawyer, Kathryn Marshall, said the government’s response is an example of why some people are scared to make workplace misconduct claims.

“I’m very disappointed that the government has chosen to continue their pattern of retaliatory conduct towards my client by maligning her character,” Marshall said.

“The assertions in the statement of defence about my client’s character are completely false.”

Marshall said the lawsuit will continue and she declined to comment on how her client is feeling about the government’s response.

“I do look forward to cross-examining Premier Jason Kenney who is someone who has very key information about the matter in this court proceeding,” Marshall said.

None of the allegations in the statement of claim have been tested in court. A court date for the lawsuit has not been set.

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Chelan Skulski

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