His Name is Michael Giftopoulos
His name is Michael Giftopoulos. He has been a dedicated and respected teacher and coach for the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board for 25 years, the last 11 as a guidance counselor. Following a heart attack he suffered in July, 2007, Mike was cleared to return to work in September, 2008. But instead of being returned to his previous work duties (which is the board’s usual practice) in a small group/counseling setting, the board refused to accommodate him, ignored his doctor’s recommendations and gave him a timetable of six career studies effectively doubling up his workload.
Still vulnerable and recovering, Mike suffered a stress-related illness due to the patently excessive workload that was imposed on him by the board against his protests to his principal and his local union president. Although his timetable was tweaked under pressure from his doctor, the board still blocked Mike from returning to his guidance duties. It was apparent that the board had no interest in treating him fairly according to its own policies and past practice. Mike ended up completing the teaching term in June, 2010, working a half-day schedule.
Mike went back to work on a full-time schedule in September, 2010 but, once again, the board refused to allow him to return to his pre-illness guidance/counseling assignment recommended by his doctors. The inevitable happened. Burdened again with an unmanageable workload and a variety of unfamiliar classroom teaching duties, Mike was forced to take another stress-related leave in May, 2011. As a result, he went back to work on a part-time basis the following school year.
The Board Threatened to Call a Police Escort
By August 12, 2012, Mike was medically cleared to return to a full-time schedule again. However, within a few weeks, despite the fact that his department head was happy with his work and he was able to meet all work-related expectations, the school board, at a re-entry meeting at the board office on October 29, 2012, reduced Mike’s schedule to part-time work again. There was absolutely no rhyme or reason for this unilateral decision. It seems the board’s human resources administrators thought they knew better than his doctors what hours Mike was medically capable of working.
Mike balked. He contacted his union. The president of his local union advised that he continue to put in his full-time hours and promised to grieve for full pay retroactively. The board, not renowned for its sensitivity to disabled workers, threatened to call a police escort to remove Mike forcibly from school property if he continued “to camp-out at the school” by working full-time hours. Mike felt isolated. His union president, who was the school principal’s brother-in-law, never kept his promise to grieve. Even though he still had to attend to the needs of 315 grade 11 students, Mike succumbed to the board’s directive. And that is where Mike Giftopoulos was stuck for the next year—as a part-time educator shorted the salary he sorely needed to support his family. That’s also when he decided to fight back.
On his own volition, Mike filed a Human Rights Complaint of discrimination on grounds of disability against the board on March 1, 2013. The school board responded to the application on June 10, 2013. And, lo and behold, who had they chosen to represent them? None other then an affable, confident, crafty, well-connected and savvy up-and-coming downtown Toronto lawyer with a ton of ambition by the name of Margot Blight. (Drum roll!)
The Price Paid For Her Services, After All, Was Right
With her imaginative inclinations in full bloom, Ms. Blight let go a torrent of unsubstantiated and even bizarre, unproven and unparticularized allegations against Mike that were completely unfounded and designed to justify the abusive conduct of the board and keep Mike from full-time employment. In the response penned by her to Mike’s complaint, Ms. Blight repeated the board’s false charges of “inappropriate behaviour at work…tied to his disability” as an excuse for refusing Mike a full-day, full-pay work schedule. She accused him of being “inappropriately aggressive towards some professional colleagues” (who are not identified), of “aggressive behaviour” (not described) and of continuing to be “medically unfit” to work full-time. (But half-time is okay? Where did they get their medical degrees from?) Margot Blight, lawyer extraordinaire, acted as an enabler to her client’s discriminatory abuse without nary a twinge of conscience. The price paid for her services, after all, was right.
But Ms. Margot Blight, sailing on a sea of self-confidence, was—unknown to her—about to hit the shoals. Because Margot Blight has another avocation to which she devotes her considerable energy when she is not doing her normal day job duties enabling the cover-up of abusive, heartless and discriminatory conduct of clients like the Catholic School Board. She has been plucked out of her Bay Street digs by Big Law to chair Harry Kopyto’s Law Society panel deciding if he has the moral credibility to be grandparented as a paralegal. She was brought in for the kill after Harry devoured two previous panel chairs and their panel sidekicks.
The “Good” Ms. Blight Versus the “Real” Ms. Blight
In the Law Society’s hearing room, Ms. Blight likes to believe that she shines like the epitome of tolerance, fairness, even-handedness and a selfless purveyor of neutral justice. This is the image of the “good” Margot Blight—a fair judge open to reason and without preconceived biases. However, in the wood-paneled anterooms off the deep-carpeted corridors in the skyscraper where Margot Blight’s megafirm, Borden, Lander, Gervais (BLG to the cognoscenti) does its business, we see a different Margot Blight: a lawyer fighting disabled workers, weakening safety legislation, undermining trade unions and protecting public institutions that ride roughshod over their employees. There are dozens and dozens of Mike Giftopoulos’ that have been targeted by the well-heeled and well-connected clients Ms. Blight represents to the exclusion of any other clients who do not fit that mold. This is the “real” Ms. Blight.
Despite the fierce character assassination of Mike Giftopoulos set out in the school board’s response authored by Ms. Blight, there is absolutely no evidence to support the vicious smear against his character. At no time was Mike called down, written up, warned, reprimanded or mediated with respect to any offending conduct during his entire teaching career. No complaint filed with Respectful Workplace. Nothing on his file. No paper trail. No specific incidents identified. No witnesses’ reports of aggressive or inappropriate behaviour. Nothing. The board’s insinuations, bereft of detail or documentation, so assiduously penned by Blight, are a tissue of unsubstantiated exaggerations or lies concocted to justify gross discrimination of a vulnerable worker by an employer with the mentality of an absolute monarch.
Harry Didn’t Think of Asking for a Retainer
Facing a $600 an hour (or more?) lawyer out to sink his reputation and truncate his career and earnings, Mike searched very hard for someone to represent him. He needed someone who could stand up to an institution with deep pockets that felt it had a God-given right to act arbitrarily and treated its disabled workers like feudal serfs. He found someone. His name is Harry Kopyto. And in one of those coincidences that is almost impossible to believe, it is the same Harry Kopyto whose character Margot Blight is judging as chair of the Law Society panel!
Harry embraced Mike’s case without hesitation; he agreed to act for him immediately. Harry saw Mike’s case as an effort to protect the rights of disabled persons victimized by a powerful publicly-funded institution able to retain a savvy lawyer to continue to justify the board’s discriminatory conduct. Harry took the case on principle, not even thinking of asking for a retainer.
Public Interest Remedies Are Key
Furthermore, Harry found he had common cause with Mike, a competent educator with strong feelings of empathy for his students and solidarity with other teachers, on how to proceed with the complaint. They both wanted to pursue the human rights complaint in order to set a precedent that would benefit other vulnerable persons employed by the board. They both regretted the failure of Mike’s union local, dominated by a cliquish leadership with a sheepish attitude to management reinforced by nepotistic influences, to stand up for Mike’s equitable and seniority rights. Accordingly, Harry and Mike agreed to seek relief from the Human Rights Tribunal at his hearing to include public interest remedies that would have the following goals:
(i) compliance with all Human Right Code jurisprudence relating to accommodation of disabled employees with particular emphasis on ensuring reasonable workload assignments;
(ii) training and supervision of all the board’s administrative staff to ensure such compliance;
(iii) adequate support and counseling at the time of re-entry of disabled workers into the board’s workforce;
(iv) empowering joint Health and Safety Committees at the workplace to provide immediate relief upon request from workers alleging discriminatory treatment by management that threatens their health or safety, subject to broad and effective grounds of appeal;
(v) seeking monetary relief from the board to provide for the creation of a fund to ensure ongoing implementation and compliance with the above goals.
In addition, Harry and Mike share an additional goal—to ensure that unions, like the one Mike belongs to, actively defends the seniority rights of its members that were so cavalierly sacrificed when Mike was refused the right to be assigned to his pre-injury duties over a four-year period.
Imagine the Look on Ms. Blight’s Face…
When Harry first agreed to represent Mike in July, he was not aware that the lawyer hired by the board to oppose Mike was Margot Blight, the same lawyer judging his moral competence for the Law Society. Mike had chosen Harry to represent him after reading references about Harry during an internet search for a legal representative. When Harry discovered that Ms. Blight was representing the board, he notified her immediately. Imagine the look on her face when she realized that she was crossing swords with Harry in Mike’s case! Blight immediately saw red lights flashing. With barely a thought, she passed the Giftopoulos file to a colleague down the hall, rashly thinking that she had wiped her hands of a conflict of interest. Imagine also the look on her face when Harry announced, at the start of the August 29th Law Society hearing into his moral character nine days later, that Blight’s efforts to distance herself from a clear conflict of interest failed—Mike Giftopoulos had volunteered to be a witness at the Law Society hearing for Harry! Mike requested without prompting to attest to his dealings with Harry in his own case as evidence of Harry’s good character. How could Blight possibly judge objectively the evidence of a witness whom she so intensely maligned?
Stay Tuned for October 16th
Blight’s options are worse than bad. From a conflict of interest to a perception of bias—fate had wrought an inescapable dilemma for Ms. Blight from which she now seeks desperately to extricate herself. Will she do it? Will the Law Society prosecution succeed in its directive from Blight, made August 29th, to eliminate Giftopoulos as a witness for Harry to save the Panel’s bacon? Will three years of hearings before the Blight Panel go down the Law Society drain? Will Harry be denied the fundamental right to call a witness of his choice? Will Blight accept that she has been irreversibly compromised in her role as a judge and resign? Or will she and her resourceful mentors find a solution to avoid an intractable appearance of bias interlaced with an ongoing financial conflict of interest?
The decision will be made on Wednesday, October 16, 2013, 9:30 a.m. at the Museum Room in Osgoode Hall when Blight will hear Harry’s motion to ask her to recuse herself. Support Harry. Be there.