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Employment lawyer Howard Levitt.

KOUROSH KESHIRI

On a Sunday afternoon in fall 2017, Howard Levitt arrives for a taping of his Newstalk 1010 radio show with his usual panache: pulling up in his iceblue Ferrari and rushing into the studio, brimming with energy. Dressed in a leather moto jacket, slim jeans and silver sneakers, he could be mistaken for a nightclub promoter. But once the microphone is turned on, there’s little doubt about his occupation.

There’s much he wants to discuss on this week’s Employment Law with Howard Levitt, most notably Harvey Weinstein’s ouster from his eponymous production company. Ever since the news broke of sexual harassment allegations and a subsequent cover-up, Levitt’s office has been flooded with calls from the media seeking comment and corporate clients worried a similar scandal could embroil their own firms.

As is his custom, Levitt begins the show with a tip of the week. “In the wake of Weinstein, if you are a manager of a company and you see sexual harassment, you see sexual predation of any kind, you have to act on it,” he tells listeners. Many people at Weinstein Co. knew what the co-chair was up to and didn’t address it, he adds. “If I were acting for those women, I’d sue every single one of them.”

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The declaration is both a warning and a sales pitch. Over the past 40 years, Levitt has built a reputation as the fiercest and most sought-after employment lawyer in Canada, a wily and bombastic advocate who is both admired and despised by opposing counsel. Larry Burnett, former VP of human resources at Corus Entertainment, says hiring Levitt is “like bringing a bazooka to a gunfight.” Levitt’s reputation gives his clients—some of Canada’s biggest corporations—an important edge, adds Burnett: “His adversaries hold him in awe. You mention you’re bringing Howard to an arbitration, and that’s not an experience the other side wants to endure.”

With the workplace more politicized than ever, no one is shaping, or capitalizing on, the fraught atmosphere more than Levitt. In the months that followed the Weinstein revelations, as high-profile actors, newscasters and executives lost their jobs and reputations amid charges of sexual harassment, Levitt and his colleagues at the 13-lawyer Levitt LLP made scores of media appearances—especially the three female partners, Muneeza Sheikh, Sunira Chaudhri and Tatha Swann. Early this year, Levitt watched proudly as Swann, the firm’s managing partner, sat front and centre during the press conference announcing a lawsuit four actors were filing against Canadian theatre luminary Albert Schultz and his Soulpepper Theatre Co.

Levitt doesn’t mind bragging about his firm’s achievements. “We have the biggest practice in employment law in the country by far, the biggest set of corporate clients, the biggest billings,” he says. Some in the employment bar contest those claims, although Levitt’s stratospheric fee (starting at $985 an hour) makes credible his claim that his firm’s lawyers average over $1 million a year in billings.

Those billings have risen dramatically in recent months, as corporations seek advice on how best to curb behaviour that may once have been waved off as “boys being boys.” The Human Rights Legal Support Centre reported a 48% spike in inquiries about sexual harassment in the first two months of this year compared to the same period in 2017, and statistics show that as many as half of all women have experienced sexual harassment at work. The Me Too movement has blown the doors open on misconduct in corporate Canada, forcing employers to aggressively address allegations. “There’s been a sea change,” says Levitt. “Companies are saying, ‘Our brand is more important than this particular employee’s fate.’” Yet one workplace where allegations of toxic behaviour have arisen is the one you’d think would be most sensitive to the zeitgeist: Levitt’s own firm.

***

Levitt at the wheel of his Ferrari California.

Kourosh Keshiri

Five years ago, Howard Levitt made headlines of a different sort after a torrential rainstorm left Toronto deluged. While racing to the downtown airport, he drove his ice-blue Ferrari California into a flooded underpass and submerged the car in storm-sewer water. Undeterred, he abandoned the vehicle and hailed a cab. The next day, wearing the same suit in which he had waded through filthy waist-high water (he rinsed it in the shower and dried it with a hair dryer), Levitt arrived at his hearing in Ottawa and won the case.

The story of the crazy lawyer and his scrapped $250,000 whip went viral on social media, and Levitt turned it into a master class in branding, obligingly submitting to media interviews to explain why he’d been in such a rush.

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Levitt shrugs off the incident; he’d expect any of his associates to go to the same lengths for a client. Sporting a carefully curated outfit—a vibrant red-and-white-striped shirt, a crimson-lined Ozwald Boateng jacket and electric blue glasses—he fetches two glasses of water and confesses it’s the first thing he has ingested all day. In fact, he says he rarely eats or drinks anything but water before 8 p.m.; dinner is usually his only meal of the day and includes several courses that he often cooks himself. (A wine collector and foodie, Levitt writes both a legal column and an occasional restaurant column for the National Post.) The fasting, he says, “keeps me intense.” He doesn’t sleep much, either: “Two in the morning is better for me than 8 a.m.”

Levitt’s office, in the heart of the financial district, is an undistinguished space, save for a chunky, marble-topped metal desk from the 1980s and a sculpture of a woman made of scrap metal that his colleagues deemed inappropriate for the lobby of a Bay Street firm. The only personal touches are a cluster of photos of his wife, former BNN host Pamela Ritchie, and their three young children (along with his daughter from a previous marriage), as well as a sign inside a yellow hazard triangle that reads, “If you feel uncomfortable entering, trust your instincts!!!”

Settling into a leather club chair, he shares exciting news: He has just been retained by Lindsay Shepherd, the teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University who has been accused of creating a “toxic environment” for transgender people after she showed a video clip of controversial professor Jordan Peterson (another of Levitt’s clients) during a tutorial. The two connected after Levitt voiced his support for her in a television interview. Students aren’t Levitt’s typical clientele, but the international uproar over Shepherd’s treatment made the case too tantalizing for him to ignore, especially given his own history as a student activist.

Levitt grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, the eldest of four children of a prominent Jewish couple. His father was an avid athlete, but Howard showed no interest in sports, instead channelling his energy into left-wing politics. In Grade 12, he organized a walkout in support of girls having the right to wear pants to school. The rally drew more than 1,000 students and resulted in Levitt’s temporary expulsion.

After being called to the bar in 1979, he took a job as a labour lawyer at Imperial Oil. A new branch of employment law, called wrongful dismissal, was just emerging, covering grounds for termination and how much employers should pay dismissed workers. The prevailing practice was for the parties to agree to a settlement—typically less than six months’ pay—and for the employee to nevertheless file suit to make it non-taxable, says Levitt. “They would then settle the next day for exactly what was agreed to.” Taking serious legal action against the employer was considered taboo.

Levitt began writing articles for a legal trade publication. Though still a greenhorn, he started getting invited to speaking engagements, and his articles ended up being quoted in judgments. So Levitt decided to write a book on wrongful dismissal. For over two and a half years, he spent his nights sifting through decades of notes and judgments from thousands of cases. The Law of Dismissal in Canada, published in 1985 and now in its third edition, was often cited in dismissal cases. “I knew it would solidify my career, and it did,” he says.

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After Imperial Oil, Levitt spent time at two now-defunct firms before starting his own shop, Levitt and Associates, in 1985. “I make a terrible employee,” he says. “I’m not good at taking orders.” He soon found his way into the spotlight. One of the first cases he argued, in small-claims court, involved a demoted maître d’. He won, and the case was prominently featured in The Globe and Mail. An even bigger profile builder was a wrongful dismissal lawsuit filed by Betty Stone, which helped spark a public investigation into illegal political contributions to the Ontario Liberal Party and its campaign fund. The scandal—dubbed the Patti Starr affair, after the former chair of Ontario Place was convicted of fraud and breach of trust (she was later pardoned)—landed Levitt on the front pages of newspapers across the country.

Another early case had him acting for a fired car-dealership employee named Marek Machtinger. Levitt argued that a contract his client signed didn’t meet the minimum set out by the Employment Standards Act and that Machtinger deserved seven months of severance instead of the four weeks he had received. Levitt appealed the decision to the Supreme Court and won in 1992. Machtinger v. HOJ Industries became a seminal case in wrongful dismissal law because it established that termination clauses can’t contravene employment standards. “It basically unified wrongful dismissal law, which is 80% of the files in this and most employment law offices,” says Martin Sheard, a partner at Tevlin Gleadle Curtis in Vancouver who has gone up against Levitt. “Canada-wide, it all goes back to Machtinger.”

That triumph brought Levitt to the attention of major corporations, but his aggressive behaviour in court started to leach into the office. In the late 1990s, he’d decided to close up shop—with seven lawyers on staff, he couldn’t keep up with the administrative work, he says. So the self-proclaimed “terrible employee” went to work for Lang Michener (now McMillan LLP). In 2010, an employee sued Lang Michener, alleging harassment and discrimination by Levitt. She said in the suit, which was eventually settled, that she continued to deal with medical issues resulting from working at the firm.

When Lang Michener merged with McMillan in 2011, Levitt did not go along. Instead, he started his own firm again. “I got most of my early clients by beating them [in court],” Levitt brags. Those for whom he got results referred him to others. For example, Ted Rogers introduced him to J.R. Shaw, who introduced him to Peter Bissonnette, then an executive at Shaw Communications. While Levitt LLP has something of a specialty in media and communications, it also represents the likes of the Business Development Bank of Canada, The Co-operators, CPA Canada and Italpasta. “I can’t remember ever losing a case with Howard,” says Bissonnette.

***

Levitt at home in Toronto with a bottle of rare and expensive Pappy Van Winkle bourbon.

How Levitt scores those wins can be controversial. He is adept at skewering his opponents and demoralizing their clients. Consider his handling of a case last year, in which his client, an Alberta company he can’t name for confidentiality reasons, was being sued by a former salesman for wrongful dismissal. The company had refused to pay the axed employee a roughly $400,000 severance, claiming he violated the terms of his contract by trying to poach the company’s clients.

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Levitt couldn’t prove the employee actively solicited clients, so he took a different tack. During cross-examination, he asked the plaintiff about a relative who was his subordinate. As the man and his lawyers exchanged surprised looks, Levitt presented affidavits from female employees accusing the relative of abusive behaviour. What did a relative’s actions have to do with whether the plaintiff had poached business? “Nothing,” Levitt admits. “It should have been objected to.” But it wasn’t, allowing Levitt to hone in on the toxicity in the office that he said the plaintiff had allowed to thrive. He asked the man how his clients would react to such allegations in the wake of the Weinstein scandal. The employee, worried about his reputation, accepted a settlement offer. “I bring out the villainy of the opponent,” Levitt says. “Get him totally discombobulated psychologically, so when he thinks about his case, he will vomit.”

In another case, Levitt was acting for Corus against a female complainant. “He really pillaged her,” recalls Hal Blackadar, the company’s former head of human resources. “She came up to him as we were leaving the courtroom and said, ‘You were awesome. I wish you were my lawyer.’ “ Edmontonbased lawyer and arbitrator Len Dolgoy recalls an adjudication involving Shaw where the aggrieved party arrived with no counsel. Asked why, the man said that once lawyers learned they’d be facing Levitt, none would represent him.

While his persona may intimidate, it is his dogged research that wins him respect. “He doesn’t grandstand—he’s just so well-prepared,” says Dolgoy, who has arbitrated hearings involving Levitt. “The opposition doesn’t stand much of a chance.” Levitt digs into an opponent’s background and work history, using the information to sketch out a narrative of their motives. “That’s what I am best at: having a nose for what’s probably there,” he says.

That was how Levitt won Rogers Communications’ business. As he tells it, the company was in the throes of a lawsuit stemming from a dismissal, and the lawyer it had retained—a former classmate of the founder—wanted to settle. It just so happened that Levitt had faced the plaintiff in a hearing for a different client. Under oath, the man said he had not worked a single day since being fired by Rogers, which Levitt says was a lie. He informed Rogers executives, and the company asked him to take over the case. He found five examples of termination for cause in the man’s employment history, and several lies and infractions. In the 35 years since, Levitt has not lost a single case for Rogers.

His tactics have made him enemies. In January, two people threatened Levitt with bodily harm, including one who vented on Facebook that he’d like to “machine-gun” him. The memory draws a dismissive chuckle from Levitt. “Every five years, somebody threatens to have me killed,” he scoffs. He told one client before a mediation hearing, “If I don’t have the other side hating me by the end of this, I definitely haven’t done my job.”

But some members of the employment bar believe Levitt crosses the line between vigorous advocacy and undue aggression. “He is the most aggressive person I have ever dealt with,” says one employment lawyer. “I don’t mind assertive advocacy—that’s what our job is. But every single case I have had with him, he will attack me personally; he will attack my client personally.”

Levitt has also been known to report opposing counsel to the Law Society of Ontario. Indeed, during an interview for this story, Levitt receives a call from the Law Society, asking whether he wants to continue pressing a complaint he’d made against another lawyer. Levitt tells the caller he has decided to drop it. After he hangs up, he explains that the case is over, he won, and he has “lost interest” in pursuing the grievance. Asked how popular such tactics make him with other attorneys, he bristles: “I don’t care about that. Four years ago, we were four lawyers. Now we’re 13 lawyers. How do you get there? You get there by taking work away from other firms.”

Levitt has no patience for niceties. “Good litigation is active and engaging,” he says. “If you can get a judge to emotionally identify with your client, you’re going to win.” And while his firm settles more than 90% of its cases out of court, he rails against advocates too quick to jump at a settlement.

“There are senior lawyers in my field who have never been to trial,” Levitt says. When he confronts such lawyers, he offers them 60 cents to the dollar, “because I know they are going to crack,” he says. “[Clients] don’t really understand that the only good settler is someone who the other side fears will take them to trial, so they had better pay them 105 cents to the dollar or get whipped.”

Levitt’s admirers argue his bluster is simply a tool he wields exceptionally well. One Toronto litigator who emerged on the losing side of a $1.2-million settlement says Levitt impressed him. “I felt he fought fair. I came out of it with a fairly friendly feeling about the dude,” the litigator says. “He tries to create this image of a warrior, and he is that in many ways, but it’s what we all do.” Vancouver lawyer Sheard adds, “I don’t think there’s any questioning Howard’s reputation at this point.”

***

Some of his former employees may beg to differ. Levitt has been vocal about workplace bullies and harassment enablers: In a National Post column last year, he urged employers to establish “a policy based on respect and dignity, wherein management commits itself to respectful treatment of staff.” Yet, we received a dossier containing dozens of emails, some going back years, between former administrators, associates and partners concerned about Levitt’s treatment of staff, from tirades that left administrative workers crying to blow-ups so loud they could be heard throughout the office. Two employees report suffering panic attacks after run-ins with Levitt.

Levitt acknowledges he’s a strict taskmaster who can be “very direct and critical,” both vocally and via email. But he insists his comments are never personal. “I’m single-minded, I’m passionate and I’m intense. That makes up much of my success and, some might say, part of my failures,” he says. “Can I get angry? Yeah, I get angry. And I am exacting, mostly of myself, but also with the people who work for me... Do I get angry when I get bad work or if there are dishonesty and conduct issues? I do. But I am always in control.”

Most of the almost three-dozen former employees we contacted declined to comment, some due to non-disclosure agreements, and a handful would only speak off the record for fear of legal reprisal. However, at least two former employees have filed lawsuits against Levitt. In one claim, dating from spring 2016, Theda Lean, a former bookkeeper at Levitt’s firm, alleged he was a “bully” who was “unceasingly uncivil” and created “a poisoned environment at a workplace, causing tension, fear and anxiety.” Levitt, in turn, accused her of overbilling and fraudulent activity. The suit was later settled.

In 2015, Levitt allegedly became so angry at an assistant that he got very close to her, screaming into her face, until an office manager put herself between the two and demanded Levitt go back to his office to calm down “before one of the staff called the police.” This manager later described the incident in a blog post, noting “the Bully’s” partners “chose to shut their doors, close their eyes, cover their ears, put on music (anything to drown the lunatic’s screams out) or leave the office to grab a coffee.”

Levitt says he doesn’t specifically recall the incident detailed by the office manager (though he does remember one scene, around the same time, with an employee who’d been accused of theft, and says he doubts he would have been shouting). He chalks up the other allegations to “disgruntled” former employees. “I don’t recall any staff member being in tears or having panic attacks,” he says. “All I can say is, it wasn’t in front of me.”

In 2015, Howard Sloan, a partner at Toronto’s Goldman Sloan Nash & Haber (GSNH)—a firm with which Levitt used to share office space—barred him from entering the premises or communicating with most of the firm’s staff after he allegedly frightened an administrator. “I cannot in good conscience allow you to assault and terrorize my staff in the way you have become accustomed,” Sloan wrote. Levitt says it was a misunderstanding—he had shown up at the wrong place for a meeting, and was banging on the office door and calling the administrator’s name, trying to get her attention, adding the whole thing was resolved within a couple of days. We contacted two GSNH employees Levitt suggested could confirm his story, but they did not respond.

Ex-employees say the problems at Levitt LLP stem partly from the fact that Levitt has unilateral control over the firm. Emails detail an exchange between the firm’s partners about ways to “arm” employees with “proper coping skills when Howard erupts.” A former managing partner told Levitt in an email that “the culture of confrontation and conflict which you engage in makes me uncomfortable. [The] accusations that you make about others may or may not be true, but no one has to be ‘annihilated’ in the process.”

Marsha Lindsay, who worked under Levitt for 10 years at both Levitt and Associates and Lang Michener, and is now general counsel for Purolator, concedes he could be harsh. But she says his outbursts were never personal and related solely to dissatisfaction with employees’ work. “He holds no grudges,” Lindsay says. “I felt I could speak back to him.”

Instead, what stands out in her mind about working with Levitt was how much he helped her career. As a Black woman on Bay Street, Lindsay says she saw rampant discrimination, but that was never the case with Levitt. “I was thrown into situations I didn’t think I could handle,” she says. “I was so much ahead of my peers in terms of experience.”

Levitt’s partner Muneeza Sheikh reports that in the seven years she’s worked with Levitt, she has never received a complaint about his treatment of staff. Nevertheless, in April, she called a partners’ meeting to discuss the firm’s culture. “I said to them, ‘Look, millennials don’t work like we do. They don’t grind,’” she says. “They’re not looking to bill 10 to 12 hours a day and make big bonuses. They are happy to make good salaries.” The partners agreed they needed to adjust their expectations or they’d struggle to recruit and retain junior lawyers. It’s important, Sheikh told the partners, to be “kind and warm in our communications. Let’s have more lawyer socials.”

***

While many employers have become more vigilant about abuse of power in any form, it is sexual misbehaviour that is the top focus. And three years before Weinstein, Canada had its own celebrity case that, in some ways, highlighted the challenges around workplace misconduct more vividly than the Hollywood saga. CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi was accused of sexual assault in his private life and of sexual harassment at work. At his criminal trial, his accusers’ testimonies and characters were tarnished under cross-examination. Ghomeshi was found not guilty.

The verdict outraged many, but Levitt believes they missed an important point: The CBC employees who alleged sexual harassment were not the same women behind the criminal charges. And Ghomeshi did lose his job. Reports of his violent sexual experiences damaged the CBC’s brand, Levitt observes. “And there is a monumental difference between criminal sexual assault and sexual harassment of a subordinate in the workplace.” In the civil process, all evidence is presented at a discovery hearing, so neither the complainant nor the accused can be thrown any curveballs at trial. But the most important difference is that in civil court, accusers only need to prove that sexual harassment likely happened, not the higher standard of beyond reasonable doubt, as with Ghomeshi. Not surprisingly, Levitt advocates the civil process to prosecute harassment claims—which is what is happening with the four women suing Albert Schultz and Soulpepper.

Even without a criminal conviction, the Ghomeshi case put employers on notice about the potential fallout if they let harassment allegations fester. In recent months, Sheikh has conducted numerous sexual harassment forums for clients, and the firm gets many calls from companies seeking advice on how to handle accusations. Levitt’s recommendation: “Ask the leadership team, ‘Is there something you have done in the past that could be embarrassing if it came up now?’ “ If an executive fails to disclose an incident, the lie can be cause for dismissal, he says.

Sandra Guarascio, a partner with Roper Greyell in Vancouver, says it’s vital to encourage employees to come forward as early as possible with any concerns, and to develop procedures to alleviate the stigma around reporting harassment. “This type of conduct is often repeated. It often escalates,” Guarascio says. “Because it’s intimidating to come forward, it’s very helpful to have processes that say, ‘We can assist you in trying to resolve this informally.’”

Conducting policy reviews and investigating workplace allegations has become a “cottage industry” for employment lawyers, says Levitt. He thinks such independent probes are mostly ill-advised because HR departments are better positioned to investigate complaints, and conducting an independent probe often costs more than giving someone a pink slip and a package. Many companies concerned about bad publicity and potential liability opt for that route, simply removing an accused staffer without bothering to confirm the charges. “Now they’re saying, ‘We’re terminating him, no questions asked, and then we’ll decide if we pay him [compensation],’” says Levitt.

That may seem unfair, but legally, companies are within their rights. There is no legal requirement to conduct a full investigation, says Levitt, just an expectation that the employer will present the allegations and give the employee a chance to respond before making a decision. (This also helps lock in the employee’s version of events, in case it ends up in court.) “In Canada, no one has a right to a job,” says Levitt. “We only have a right to wrongful dismissal damages if we are fired without the high standard of legal cause.”

What companies can no longer afford to do is sweep allegations under the rug. The New York Times dubbed the people who knew about Weinstein’s behaviour and helped cover it up “the complicity machine,” and that’s who Levitt believes will be the next target for the Me Too movement. Ghomeshi wasn’t the only one who lost his job at the CBC: Two executives were fired following a probe into what happened (one has filed a wrongful dismissal suit against the broadcaster). “Smart lawyers will realize this army of enablers should also be sued, along with the harasser and the company,” Levitt says. “They will include many heads of human resources and general counsels. That will prove to be a shocking next chapter in the Me Too saga.”

As for the saga at his own firm, Levitt concedes, “I need to be softer and gentler” when dealing with junior associates. But he won’t acknowledge the contradiction in an advocate of workplace respect—one who relishes using evidence of office misconduct to further his clients’ cases—facing his own allegations of inappropriate behaviour toward employees. “I don’t apologize for seeking excellence,” he says. “Our clients come to us because they have a lot on the line, and they expect us to make no mistakes.”

He does note the pressure at his law firm can be challenging to young lawyers. “They’ve never dealt with anyone before who is particularly intense because that is not the atmosphere on school campuses these days, where we have trigger warnings and microaggressions,” he says. “All of a sudden, someone is saying, ‘You’re doing a lousy job, you’re not thinking, you’re being lazy…’ I know the practice at big firms is to say nothing and fire them. I have a different approach.”

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