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Ex-Alberta justice minister found in contempt of court for defamation-threat letter

Judge ruled letter was an attempt to intimidate Dr. Anny Sauvageau while she was on witness stand
Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis comments on an auditor general’s report in Edmonton on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

A former Alberta justice minister has been found in contempt of court for threatening to sue a plaintiff in the middle of her testimony in a civil trial.

Justice Doreen Sulyma ruled Wednesday that a letter sent last week on behalf of Jonathan Denis was an attempt to intimidate Dr. Anny Sauvageau while she was on the witness stand in her lawsuit against the Alberta government.

Sulyma said in her decision that the letter made Sauvageau fearful of testifying plainly and honestly, prompted another witness to beg off testifying at all and raised the spectre of a mistrial in a complex hearing following years of pre-trial litigation.

Denis was not in court when Sulyma delivered her decision in Court of Queen’s Bench, but listened in electronically.

He is not a defendant in the lawsuit. However, he was justice minister at the time of the allegations being fought over in court.

Denis’s lawyer, Brendan Miller, said in an email that he and his client respect the court’s decision but plan to appeal the contempt finding.

“Our client maintains that the statement was not directed at (Sauvageau’s) testimony, but rather towards comments to the media.”

Sulyma noted that Denis, through his lawyer, had apologized to court for the letter.

“I appreciate his apology, although it’s unfortunately to what I find obviously to be threatening behaviour,” Sulyma said.

She added the letter constituted “intimidation to prevent (Sauvageau) from pursuing her right to testify in this trial.”

The parties are scheduled to meet in court April 21 to set dates to pursue what kind of remedy should be sought for the contempt and who should pay court costs.

Sauvageau, Alberta’s former chief medical examiner, is suing the province for $7.6 million in lost wages and benefits after her contract was not renewed in 2014.

The civil trial crashed to a halt Friday when it was revealed a representative for Denis had sent the letter threatening to sue the doctor for defamation tied to her testimony.

Both Sulyma and Sauvageau’s lawyer, Allan Garber, said they interpreted the letter as a challenge to the time-honoured legal custom that someone can’t be sued for what they say on the witness stand.

Sulyma directed Denis and Miller to explain themselves. On Monday, Miller conceded the letter was not well drafted and poorly timed, but said it had been misinterpreted.

Miller said the letter couldn’t imply Sauvageau would be sued for her testimony because the letter was sent to Garber and Garber, like all lawyers, knows someone can’t be sued for what they say on the witness stand.

But Miller noted testimony can be used to help identify and corroborate similar statements made outside court. And that, said Miller, was what the letter was doing: cautioning Sauvageau over comments she may be making to media outside court.

Garber challenged Miller’s argument.

He said Sauvageau had not talked to media outside court. And he said if the letter was to caution Sauvageau about statements outside court, why did it only refer to statements she was making in court?

Sulyma agreed. She ruled the letter was meant for Sauvageau, clearly accused her of defamation tied to her court testimony and had warned her to “govern herself accordingly.”

“It can only be interpreted as a cease and desist letter directed to (Sauvageau’s) privileged (courtroom) testimony,” the judge said.

All sides agreed there is a history of hard feelings between Sauvageau and Denis stemming from her time as chief medical examiner.

Sauvageau alleges she was forced out of the job as punishment after raising concerns, including political interference in cases and billing on body pickups.

The government, in turn, argues Sauvageau’s contract was not renewed because she was seeking to exercise authority beyond the scope of her job while displaying questionable judgment and decision making.

Claims from either side have yet to be proven in court.

The trial was set to continue Wednesday.

—Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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