Judge gavel, scales of justice and law books in court

Julie Martini, chief operating officer (COO) with Advocis, is suing her employer for constructive and wrongful dismissal. The claim comes after the association’s former president and CEO, Greg Pollock, filed for wrongful dismissal in December.

The 45-year-old Martini is claiming damages of $208,000, consisting of her base salary of $200,000 and lost RRSP contributions of $8,000, along with other compensation amounts, according to a claim filed on March 11 with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Toronto.

Martini’s claim states that in January of this year, Advocis told her she’d be laid off for up to 35 weeks without pay, relying on the terms of her 2023 employment contract to do so.

Martini was appointed COO last year after being employed with Advocis since 2017 in marketing and strategy roles.

The 2023 contract “purported” to reflect Martini’s promotion to the COO role, the claim states, but Martini had already been working in the role and receiving the remuneration set out in the contract. As a result, Martini pleads that “the contract is void for want of consideration,” the claim states.

“Advocis has retained legal counsel, denies the allegations contained in the statement of claim and intends to vigorously defend the claim advanced by Ms. Martini,” Douglas Smith, counsel for Advocis and partner with Borden Ladner Gervais in Toronto, said in an emailed statement. “Advocis will not comment further on its dispute with Ms. Martini given that the parties are both represented by legal counsel and the matter is now the subject of a formal legal proceeding.”

Counsel for Martini didn’t respond to a request for comment ahead of publication time.

Martini also claims her employment contract contained termination language that violated Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, and as such, all termination language in the contract, including temporary layoff language, is void.

“It is submitted that the right to lay off without notice, thereby reducing Julie’s income to $0.00 per month, is an extraordinary right that must be found to exist in an enforceable contract, given its obvious conflict with the fundamental obligation of an employer to provide work and pay for it,” the claim states.

By placing Martini “on a layoff without her consent and without a contractual right to do so, [Advocis] breached the fundamental terms of the employment agreement between the parties, which amounted to … constructive termination of her employment,” the claim states.

Further, the claim says that in constructively terminating Martini, the association provided no notice of termination or pay in lieu.

Martini “expressly denies that the defendant had cause to terminate her employment without reasonable notice, and puts the defendant to strict proof thereof,” the claim states.

Martini claims she’s entitled to reasonable notice equal to 12 months, based on such factors as her tenure of more than six years, executive position, remuneration, age and “difficulties present in the marketplace at the time of dismissal for [a] comparable position.”

Martini remains unemployed, “despite her best efforts,” the claim states.

In addition to base pay and RRSP contributions, Martini claims compensation for the 12-month notice for group benefits, monthly parking and cell phone allowances, membership fees, and five weeks’ annual vacation. Advocis also owed her about 497 hours of banked paid sick time when she was dismissed, the claim alleges.

The claim is the second in recent months that alleges Advocis terminated an employee wrongfully.

Former CEO Pollock alleges he was terminated “without cause” and without notice, learning of his termination through a text message from Advocis board chairman Eric Lidemark on Sept. 13, according to a statement of claim filed in December with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Milton, Ont.

Pollock’s claim states his employment contract, which was to last until the end of 2026, was breached. He seeks $2.5 million from Advocis, which denies any wrongdoing.

Another claim against Advocis was filed in December by exam-prep company SeeWhy Learning, based in Huntsville, Ont. The company is suing Advocis for an unpaid invoice of nearly $100,000 for study materials for insurance licensing. In a statement of defence, Advocis alleges it is being overcharged.

The three claims come as Advocis has looked to cut costs after expenses exceeded revenues by $2.5 million for the 2022 fiscal year.

The association has faced falling membership, costs to update its education programs and invest in infrastructure, and pandemic-related fallout.

“The financial results of 2022 have put a strain on the financial resources and liquidity of [the association],” notes to the financial statements said.

The financial statements said that, since year-end 2022, Advocis raised cash by increasing its line of credit to $500,000, arranging a loan of $610,000 against the cash surrender value of life insurance policies held, and establishing a $1.7-million line of credit from its Century Initiative Fund (funded with premium membership fees), from which it also received support.

The Century Initiative was created in 2006 to ensure the association’s capitalization and is funded with premium membership fees. Its balance was $5.5 million at the end of 2022.

Advocis’ 2022 financials said the association was in the process of completing a “restructuring plan” to “reduce operating expenses and provide a sound financial base for the organization.”

Pollock’s claim said his base salary was $468,479.55 when he was terminated.

A contact list of executive management in the association’s 2022 annual report names Pollock as COO, in addition to president and CEO. At the time, Martini was vice-president of strategic engagement.

Vice-president of operations Linda Illidge left the association in July 2023 after nearly 20 years, based on her LinkedIn profile. Barbara Riddell, vice-president of learning and development, left in December after six years, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Those two positions are no longer part of Advocis’ executive, according to the association’s website.

In a release last year announcing Martini’s appointment as COO, Pollock, as president, said the appointment “recognizes the outstanding performance that Julie has delivered” throughout her tenure with the association.

“Julie will strengthen the ability of our executive management team to focus on our 2023–2027 strategic plan,” Pollock said in the release.