The Belize Tourism Board will have to pay close to 1 million dollars in damages following the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Karen Bevans’ wrongful termination lawsuit; counter and ancillary claims filed by the BTB were dismissed.
by Marco Lopez
BELIZE CITY, Wed. Sept. 14, 2022
The former Director of Tourism, Karen Bevans, will be collecting close to eight hundred thousand dollars from the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) after the issuance this week of a Supreme Court ruling in favor of her wrongful termination claim, which she brought against the board following her dismissal from the BTB in March 2021, just a few months after the current PUP administration entered office. Justice Geneviéve Chabot, who handed down the judgment, awarded Bevans $769,869.00 dollars – what was to be her remaining salary under her second contract of employment, which was signed 1 year and 8 months before the new administration came into power in November 2020.
The BTB argued in court that this contract was invalid, since, according to them, it was signed without the resolution of the board of directors and the authorization of the Minister of Tourism – being executed instead under the former Chairman and Vice Chairman of the BTB. (Bevans’ attorney, Senior Counsel Dean Barrow, in fact told a local television station, “What the BTB was arguing was that this contract was not properly given … the Prime Minister had said the same thing, that Mrs. Bevans gave herself this contract, the board did not act properly as it were sanctioning the contract, the contract was therefore illegal …”). The BTB also contended that clause 7.1.1 in the agreement, which stipulated that Bevans would have been entitled to payment if she was subjected to a wrongful termination, was an unenforceable penalty, and it brought ancillary claims against former Tourism Minister, Manuel Heredia; the former chairman of the Board of the BTB, Einer Gomez; and former BTB vice-chairman, Glenford Eiley.
The claim which was brought against those persons was dismissed by Justice Chabot. At the time of Bevans’ dismissal, the BTB had opted to give her an ex-gratia payment of one year’s salary as a settlement to end any and all future claims for loss of wages under the agreement. This proposal was not accepted by Bevans, who through her attorney, Senior Counsel Dean Barrow, sent a written rejection of the offer to the board, but Barrow noted that the money, about $180,000, was still sent to the claimant’s account.
“The BTB, in fact, filed a counterclaim against her; that arose because when they wrote her to tell her that she was being terminated, they said ‘we will pay you a year’,” Barrow explained. “They said this is in full pay and final settlement, you are being terminated, we will give you a year’s salary, and that’s it. She came to me; I wrote back to say, ‘we do not accept that’; when they sent her the letter talking about the year’s salary that they will give, it said we do this by way of ex-gratia payment,” Barrow said.
That payment, however, was conditional—requiring, specifically, that she agree to not pursue legal action to recover the remainder of the salary to which she would have been entitled if she had served the full term of the contract.
“We wrote back to say that’s nonsense. They still deposited that year’s salary in her account,” Barrow explained. The counterclaim to recover that one year of salary was thus dismissed.
The court, in addition to ruling in favor of Bevans and awarding damages and legal costs, which, according to her attorney amount to about $81,000, also dismissed the ancillary claim brought by the BTB against the former Tourism Minister, Manual Heredia; former Chairman of the Board of the BTB, Einer Gomez; and former BTB Vice-Chair, Glenford Eiley.
The BTB had claimed that Minister Heredia breached his statutory duty by failing to approve the contract for Bevans’ second term as Director of the BTB. The court found, however, that the agreement had been approved by Heredia by phone. The judgment noted, “It is Mr. Heredia’s understanding that there was no requirement for his approval to be in writing. He instructed the Chairman of the Board to execute the Agreement, and once those instructions were issued, the Board had to follow those instructions, which it did.”
The court also rejected the BTB’s claim that clause 7.1.1 of the contract agreement was unenforceable, that it was “irrationally generous”, and that “no reasonable and rational contracting authority would have considered it”. “The Court rejects the notion that Clause 7.1.1 was either unjustified, disproportionate, not in the best interest of the BTB, excessively generous to the Claimant, or… unreasonable based on the fact that Clause 7.1.1 is a standard clause in BTB’s employment contracts, that the Agreement was negotiated at arm’s length, and that there is evidence that Clause 7.1.1 is justified on a commercial basis,” stated Chabot’s ruling.
When interviewed after the issuance of the ruling. Senior Counsel Dean Barrow, who was prime minister of the country when Bevans served as BTB Director, said that both current and past directors of the BTB have benefited from the inclusion in their employment contracts of such a clause guaranteeing payment in cases of wrongful termination. Barrow even made reference to a specific instance of this: “As you know at the time when the UDP was in office, Mr. Mahler [Hon. Anthony Mahler—current Tourism Minister who was the BTB’s Director of Finance at the time] was terminated early and he sued and the then BTB settled, because they accepted that the contract said what it did.”
Prime Minister Hon. John Briceño and RSV Ltd. were both earlier sued successfully in a defamation claim that was brought by Bevans in response to the Prime Minister’s description of her employment agreement as a “crony contract” during comments he made on Love FM and other national media in December 2020. Hon. Briceño had claimed that there was a plethora of compiled evidence that never made it to the courtroom. When he first learned of a possible lawsuit against him, Prime Minister Briceño had stated, “I don’t think she wants to go to court, because when we set up all the evidence of what has happened during her time, it’s not going to be a pretty picture.” Notably, neither Hon. Briceño nor RSV Limited had apologized as was requested by Bevans in a letter sent by her lawyer—which was noted by Justice Westmin James, who, in an August 2021 ruling, awarded Bevans $30,000 in aggravated damages and $60,000 in compensatory damages.
“The Claimant contends that she is not a political appointee,” stated the judgment handed down today. Bevans’ contract was renewed in April 2019 and was to run until April 2024, before she was terminated in March 2021. In February of that year, while Bevans was still at the helm of the BTB, an investigation was launched to determine if pension funds were misappropriated. Minister Mahler had stated at the time that he believed that trustees used those funds to pay themselves at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Notably, the BTB, also while Bevans was BTB Director, parted ways with 50% percent of its staff during the first few months of the pandemic.
There has been no indication that the BTB will appeal the ruling, but the board’s attorney, Andrew Marshalleck, told local media this week that they are still considering what options are available to them and that he would be reviewing the court’s judgment before making a determination.