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Hospital CEO fired for travelling to U.S. claiming bad faith, loss of reputation in lawsuit

Thursday, January 21, 2021 @ 9:41 AM | By Ian Burns

A former hospital CEO who was fired after travelling to the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic has launched a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against his former employer, saying he was dismissed in bad faith and that the hospital’s board chair approved his plans to go south of the border.

Dr. Paul Woods, who was chief executive of the London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) in London, Ont., was terminated earlier this month when it was revealed he had travelled to Michigan five times last year to visit his fiancée and daughter, despite the federal government’s recommendations against non-essential travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. He is now seeking $2.5 million in damages for bad faith termination, loss of reputation and discrimination under Ontario Human Rights Code on the grounds of family status.

Since December, politicians and other officials from across Canada have been facing criticism for their decision to travel despite warnings not to do so. Woods, a Canadian citizen who has permanent resident status in the United States, says in his statement of claim he informed hospital board chair Amy Walby and chief counsel Susan Nickle about his travel plans. The statement of claims says Walby sent an e-mail saying that she “support[ed] what you need to do” and it was “reasonable to afford some ability to see loved ones,” and that she felt there was no need to get board approval but “we can give them a heads up.”

The hospital initially put out a release Jan. 8 saying the board was aware Woods, who has no immediate family in Canada, travelled for personal reasons and supported his leadership but three days later terminated his employment, saying “it had no advance notice of and did not approve his travel outside Canada.”

 Michael Wright, Wright Henry LLP

Michael Wright, Wright Henry LLP

His lawyer, Michael Wright of Wright Henry LLP, said that statement was “simply false.”

“It questioned his honesty and created an impression that he was less than candid and forthright, when in fact he was completely transparent with them,” he said. “Part of the claim is the board issued this inaccurate statement to preserve its own reputation at the expense of his reputation — and he is claiming it did so knowingly. He says this conduct is malicious and has caused him damage.”

Wright said LHSC had the right to terminate Woods without cause “but did not have the right to effectively destroy his reputation” by using its public position to untruthfully state that he did not advise of or seek approval for his travel plans in advance. He also noted Woods followed proper health protocols upon returning to Canada, including quarantining for 14 days, and was not captured by the land border restrictions due to his permanent residency status.

“This is face-saving at his expense. People can certainly have different views about whether it was appropriate for Dr. Woods to travel, and he takes responsibility for those decisions,” he said. “But the issue in the lawsuit is whether if he was travelling secretly and without board approval, and he was not — the decision was one he made with the full knowledge and approval of the chair of the board, unlike some of the other instances which have recently come to people’s attention.”

Walby resigned as board chair shortly after the suit was filed. In a statement, the hospital said it denies Woods’ allegations and will respond to the details when it files a statement of defence. It added that Woods’ travels to the U.S. were known by many people at the hospital and in the community as he did not try to hide his whereabouts.

“When objections to Dr. Woods’ travel were raised by those at LHSC, he advised that he had the support of the board chair and as such there was no room for further discussion or action,” the statement said. “As noted in our Jan. 11 message, the board has never formally approved any travel by Dr. Woods as there is no process for the board of a public hospital, including LHSC, to approve a chief executive officer’s personal travel.”

The hospital also said in its statement that Woods did disclose “aspects of his travel” to the board and board chair, but it was not until its Jan. 8 meeting that the board was “apprised of the full extent of [Woods’] travel over the course of the pandemic.”

“Prior to travelling to the United States in August 2020, Dr. Woods raised the matter of his need to periodically travel (and subsequently work from home during a quarantine period) with the chair of the board,” the statement said. “He asked her for guidance including whether he should bring the matter to the board. The chair indicated to Dr. Woods that he had her support and said that it was a personal matter that did not require board approval.”

Michael Lynk, a professor at Western University faculty of law, said based on what Woods has said so far “the hospital seems to have a case to answer, both publicly and in law.”

“Obviously we haven’t heard the hospital’s formal response yet, but he is saying he notified the chair of the board and she said it was OK,” he said. “She may have a different recollection, but on the face of it he is making the case that he had sufficient permission.”

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