Former Alberta justice minister Jonathan Denis has been cited for contempt of court over a letter sent in the midst of a former chief medical examiner’s wrongful dismissal trial.
Calling the correspondence an “act of intimidation,” Justice Doreen Sulyma said Denis is liable “on a beyond reasonable doubt basis.”
The letter emerged last week as Dr. Anny Sauvageau, Alberta’s chief medical examiner from 2011 to 2014, neared the end of her testimony in her $7.5-million lawsuit against the provincial government.
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Denis, who was the provincial minister of justice during Sauvageau’s time in her former role, was accused of trying to interfere in the trial after a letter sent on his behalf accused Sauvageau of continuing a “campaign” of defamation against him and said Denis is considering a lawsuit against her.
“Mr. Denis is a respected and renowned lawyer and businessperson and will not tolerate these tortious actions against him. These actions must forthwith cease,” the letter reads.
The correspondence ground proceedings to a halt as Sauvageau’s lawyer Allan Garber questioned why the letter was sent considering that court testimony is shielded from defamation claims. Garber said the letter was “chilling” and made Sauvageau fearful about continuing the trial, both because it caused her psychological distress and sparked worry about expenses she can’t afford in defending against a lawsuit.
On Monday, Denis’s lawyer Brendan Miller argued that the letter was directed at statements they believed the doctor was making to media outside court, and not her testimony.
But Justice Sulyma said Wednesday that she can’t accept that submission based on the contents of the letter.
“It can only, in my view, be interpreted as a cease and desist letter directed at Dr. Sauvageau’s testimony,” she said.
“I find the letter, whether written under the cloak of mistake or misunderstanding or not, constitutes intimidation.”
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Miller said in a statement Wednesday that he will appeal the contempt citation.
“We respect the Court’s decision today, but plan to appeal and bring a motion before Justice Sulyma. Our client maintains that the statement was not directed at testimony but rather towards comments to the media.”
In a sworn affidavit, Sauvageau said she hasn’t spoken directly to media since leaving the office of the chief medical examiner eight years ago.
In Sulyma’s decision, she said Sauvageau’s fear of a defamation suit can’t simply be dismissed. But she assured her that her comments about her in court are protected.
A sanction against Denis has yet to be determined. Lawyers are scheduled to meet to set a date for a hearing on that topic next week.
Miller previously said in court that the former justice minister “wishes to apologize to the court for the situation and assumes full responsibility for the misunderstanding arising from the letter.”
Sulyma said she appreciates the apology, but “it, unfortunately, refers to what I have found to be threatening behavior rather than a ‘situation’ and a ‘misunderstanding.’ ”
Denis was previously named as a defendant in Sauvageau’s lawsuit, but the action against him was discontinued, and the Alberta government is currently the only defendant.
Sauvageau’s lawsuit alleges her contract with the Alberta government wasn’t renewed because she fought political interference in her office. The allegations have not been proven in court.
Her testimony continued Wednesday afternoon, with cross-examination still to come.