Brampton councillors sued for $20M in damages over firing

Brampton’s former integrity commissioner is suing the city and the councillors who voted to fire her for $20 million in damages, in a lawsuit that appears to have the support of Mayor Patrick Brown.

In a 22-page statement of claim, labour lawyer Muneeza Sheikh said her March dismissal was part of a conspiracy by several councillors who were upset about previous or ongoing ethics investigations she was pursuing against them. Her claim also alleges the councillors were in conflict when they passed “illegal” motions that resulted in her termination.

She also alleges they defamed her when they publicly said she was overbilling for her work.

None of her claims have been proven in court, but the lawsuit is the latest instance of political turbulence that has rocked Brampton, where the grievances and disputes of a deeply divided city council have played out in the public eye.

In her claim, Sheikh said three councillors had ethics investigations pending when they initiated and voted on the process for her dismissal.

Her claim also alleges that Coun. Gurpreet Dhillon had demonstrated “animus” towards her and spoke publicly about trying to remove her from her position as “vindication,” following her 2020 investigation into a complaint from a local resident that Dhillon sexually harassed a local businesswoman during a trade mission to Turkey in 2019. Sheikh’s extensive investigation found that Dhillon had violated the code of conduct and council voted to suspend his pay for 90 days based on her findings.

Sheikh’s report was not a finding of criminal wrongdoing or guilt, and the allegations have not been tested in court. Dhillon has denied the allegations.

A civil lawsuit filed by the alleged victim was recently settled out of court.

“My client’s termination as integrity commissioner was purely retaliatory,” said Sheikh’s lawyer, Kathryn Marshall with Levitt Sheikh LLP, in a statement. “She was egregiously targeted for removal because of a decision she made with respect to a serious allegation of sexual assault against a councillor …

“She has been subjected to an outrageous smear campaign because she did her job right,” Marshall added. “We are looking forward to justice and accountability and bringing this matter before a court.”

Sheikh is suing all six councillors for $3 million each, and one councillor, Pat Fortini, for an additional $75,000 in damages for defamation. She is suing the city for $1 million for breach of contract, and another million in punitive damages.

The councillors named in the suit along with Dhillon and Fortini: Martin Medeiros, Doug Whilans, Charmaine Williams and Jeff Bowman.

According to the lawsuit, these six councillors voted as a “bloc” on matters before city council.

Dhillon did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Nor did Whilans or Williams, who is now the MPP for Brampton Centre.

Bowman, who declared a conflict during the vote and did not vote to dismiss Sheikh, said he could not comment.

The city of Brampton said it intends to defend itself.

In an email exchange obtained by the Star between Mayor Patrick Brown and Sheikh’s attorney Denise Cooney, Brown said he told Sheikh that Dhillon “stated it was his mission and priority for him to get rid of Ms. Sheikh as integrity commissioner.”

Brown also said in the June 30 email to Cooney that Fortini told him the only reason the other councillors voted to replace Sheikh was to “keep Mr. Dhillon happy” and that it had nothing to do with her fees.

“That’s what it was about,” Brown said in an interview with the Star, confirming the email and conversation. “I think everyone who followed this knows what this was about.”

Fortini denied Brown’s allegation, telling the Star “it had nothing to do with Gurpreet. (That) was a year-and-a-half ago. This was because when we saw the invoices and the bill, we said ‘enough is enough.’ ”

Fortini said it was Sheikh’s fees, which had approached $750,000 since 2020, that were the main reason for the termination of her contract. He said the integrity commissioner for the Region of Peel charges a flat rate of $110,000 per year.

In the claim, Sheikh said her billable rate was $550 per hour, and that no member of the “bloc” had “previously raised concerns” about her fees. She said despite the councillors’ objection to her billable model, they later voted to hire a new integrity commissioner who also uses billable hour pricing.

But her main contention in the claim is that the councillors — including those facing probes themselves — in a closed council meeting changed the bylaw that governs the dismissal of an integrity commissioner from requiring a two-thirds majority to pass to one needing only a simple majority.

Days later, the motion to remove Sheikh passed with a 5-3 vote. Two councillors, including Bowman, declared a conflict due to matters that were under review by Sheikh.

According to the lawsuit, Bowman voted to change the bylaw that led to her dismissal, which is why he is named in the suit.

Brown was not at the March meeting, leaving only eight council members out of 11 for the vote.

“The city terminated the contract after city council passed two illegal motions without the support of a two-third majority of city council, and contrary to the principles of natural justice, procedural fairness and democratic principles,” according to Sheikh’s claim.

Sheikh also has previously filed an application to quash the bylaw that led to her dismissal. The legal action is pending, Marshall confirmed.

“Integrity commissioners hold important roles in municipalities. They should never be removed in bad faith via procedural trickery and illegal closed door meetings,” said Marshall.

In an interview, Brown called the council’s move to fire Sheikh “illegal.”

“It was payback for her finding against Coun. (Gurpreet) Dhillon. The councillor supporting it told me that was how they got Gurpreet’s vote on other matters. They promised him this.”

Medeiros also denied that his support for terminating Sheikh’s contract was related to Dhillon and called Brown’s allegation “absurd” and “pure lies.”

Medeiros worries that if successful, Sheikh’s lawsuit would “set a precedent across the province that individual councillors can be sued based on their votes.”

Medeiros said Brown’s public characterization of Sheikh’s contract termination as illegal is putting the city in legal peril.

“It almost seems like he’s asking for the city to be sued,” Medeiros said. “Mayor Brown is being very irresponsible.”

Brown, however, told the Star he believes Sheikh’s ouster is “unethical” and calling it out is the right thing to do.

“You’re always doing the right thing if you’re telling the truth. It’s why I felt firing the integrity commissioner was wrong and everyone knew what it was about,” he said.

Noor Javed is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering city news with interest in 905 municipal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @njaved
Graeme Frisque is a reporter for Mississauga News and Brampton Guardian. Reach him via email: gfrisque@metroland.com

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By Jon Doe