By Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
A Winnipeg woman is the lead plaintiff for a $750-million class-action lawsuit against the biggest bank-owned brokerage in Canada, claiming it failed to pay vacation pay to her and many other investment advisers for years.
According to a statement of claim filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, RBC-Dominion Securities allegedly breached its legal duties by not fairly compensating many of its nearly 1,500 current advisers across the country, as well as those it previously employed.
The claims have yet to be tested or proven in court. It is expected that RBC-DS will defend against the action and deny any allegations in court.
Leigh Cunningham, a veteran adviser who spent 26 years at the company’s Winnipeg office and was its vice-president and director, is the lead plaintiff. Cunningham alleges she hadn’t been receiving at least six per cent vacation pay on her full income for decades.
“But it’s not just about me,” she said, answering questions from the Free Press at a news conference held inside Manitoba Club Thursday. “I’m trying to help everyone else who was in the same position as me and who now could hopefully be helped with the outcome of this case.
“It’s unfair that this happened and the culpability should only be on RBC for letting it get to this.”
In an emailed statement Thursday, RBC Wealth Management’s director of communications Louise Armstrong said, “everyone who works at any RBC company is fairly compensated.”
“The policies that apply to the employees involved in the action state that their compensation includes vacation pay and statutory holiday pay,” she said.
Armstrong declined to provide further comment, adding their statements of defence have not yet been filed because the action has not been certified by court.
Cunningham is being represented by a team of lawyers out of Toronto. They include Stephen Moreau, a partner at Cavalluzzo LLP; David O’Connor of Roy O’Connor LLP and Daniel Lublin of Whitten & Lublin.
Cunningham’s lawyers are claiming for $750 million in general damages and $50 million in punitive damages from RBC-DS for the lawsuit. Asked where that number came from, they told the Free Press, that’s because the amount of vacation and holiday pay varies from region to region across Canada.
“It’s a very hard calculation to make because we’re talking about 13 provinces and territories, who all have their own employment standards,” said Moreau, one of Cunningham’s lawyers.
“So, this is the number we believe is best from what we have gathered. As we move forward, we will continue to quantify the level of damages for our case.”
In Manitoba, employees are entitled to at least two weeks of vacation with vacation pay of four per cent from their gross wages, per provincial employment standards. After one year of employment, employees are entitled to at least two weeks of vacation and vacation pay of four per cent from their gross earnings. In five years time, vacation rises to at least three weeks, and vacation pay increases to six per cent of gross wages.
For Cunningham, it’s also a “systematic problem” — stemming from the type of compensation that financial advisers receive for their work, based mostly on commissions and bonuses.
“When I saw that RBC was reporting such large profits last week, I wanted people to know that it’s the advisers who make a lot of that happen,” she said.
“Me, personally, I was so focused on my career and how that was going and progressing that I really didn’t even see this happening… But the onus for that shouldn’t have to be on me.”
Cunningham’s lawsuit was served to RBC around December, with a notice of action made in 2019. It was not made public until Thursday.
It is one of five proposed class actions launched against several banks and insurance companies since early 2019 that are seeking a cumulative $1.2 billion for vacation pay allegedly owed to current and former employees.
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