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The Globe and Mail

Lawsuit against city hinges on single point

Vancouver city manager Penny Ballem.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

A lawsuit filed by a former city of Vancouver employee will turn on one question: Was Carlene Robbins dismissed or did she resign?

Ms. Robbins, the city's former manager of property inspection, filed her lawsuit last year. The case opened in B.C. Supreme Court on Monday.

The case stems from a fire at a rooming house on Pandora Street in which three men died in December, 2010. The city had known it was a problem property for years. However, Ms. Robbins told the court that each time she issued an order to fix it up, the owner would do the bare minimum. The city, at Ms. Robbins's request, was arranging a licence review when the fire broke out.

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Ms. Robbins testified the city ordered a reinspection of other problem properties after the Pandora Street fire. She said city manager Penny Ballem, in January, 2011, ordered a health inspection for one of those properties. However, Ms. Robbins said she had trouble getting hold of a health inspector on short notice, and another employee already at the scene said a health inspection was unnecessary. That worker left a message to that effect with Ms. Robbins's direct supervisor, Will Johnson, although it was not returned, Ms. Robbins testified.

The health inspection had not been completed in time for a meeting the next day. At that meeting, Ms. Robbins said, she was berated by a "furious" Ms. Ballem. Ms. Robbins testified some of the people at the meeting later approached her and said she had been treated terribly.

Ms. Robbins told the court she wrote an e-mail to Mr. Johnson and another employee the next day, expressing her disappointment.

At a meeting shortly after that, she was told she would no longer be in charge of bylaw enforcement of problem properties – which she considered 80 per cent of her job.

Ms. Robbins said she later told Mr. Johnson she was "devastated" and felt "betrayed," and that the move constituted constructive dismissal, meaning a significant aspect of her job had changed without her consent.

By the end of the month, the 37-year employee no longer worked for the city. She told the court that she put her parking pass and cell phone on her desk and left.

Peter Csiszar, a lawyer representing the city, offered a different version of events. He told the court Ms. Robbins was not dismissed and had every opportunity to continue her employment, with the "minor change" that she would not be in charge of enforcement.

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Although Ms. Robbins believed she was dismissed, the city sent a letter to her indicating she had resigned her position, which paid $105,000 a year.

Ms. Robbins is scheduled to continue her testimony on Tuesday morning. The hearing is expected to run until at least Thursday.

The Pandora Street fire killed Garland McKay, Dwayne Rasmussen and Stephen Yellowquill. Fire investigators said the house went up in flames either due to a string of Christmas lights or a short-circuiting extension cord.

Choi Hong Leong, the property's owner, denied at a coroner's inquest last year the city's claim that she was running a rooming house. She said the men were more a family than a group of individuals.

Nonetheless, she said they had promised to move out at the end of December so she could make repairs.

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