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Air Canada cleaner fired for stealing nuts wins chance to regain job

A former Air Canada cleaner who was fired for keeping almonds and lotion left behind by a first-class passenger has won a chance to get her job back.

Neena Cheema had worked for 17 years for the airline before she was let go.

Last week, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled that while she might have committed theft and possibly even bribery, her case should be sent back to arbitration to ensure the punishment fits the crime.

The theft that cost Cheema her job was a mistake, she argued in the original arbitration last year, when her union grieved the firing.

She first picked up four unopened packages of nuts and an unused tube of hand lotion while cleaning a business-class cabin at Vancouver International Airport on Feb. 10, 2016. She said she meant to put them on the galley counter for catering staff to deal with, but forgot they were in her jacket pocket in her rush to finish the job, according to court documents.

Was it bribery?

But Air Canada argued the incident crossed over from simple theft to bribery when Cheema presented the nuts and lotion to someone in human resources while she was asking for a change in her vacation dates.

In arbitration, that staff member recalled Cheema telling her: "Here are some nuts and lotion for you — I appreciate any help you can do."

Cheema argued in her defence that she had simply re-discovered the items in her pocket and placed them on the desk in front of her, saying something like "these are for you."

In his review of the case, Justice Barry Davies wrote it wasn't in his jurisdiction to question the arbitrator's finding Cheema had committed theft and bribery — even if, "it is difficult to accept that the giving of items of so little value was intended by Ms. Cheema to influence or compromise," he wrote in his judgment.

But he did have questions about whether firing Cheema was the appropriate response, and those were not answered in the arbitrator's findings.

Those unanswered questions included, "why some lesser penalty would not appropriately address her misconduct, especially in light of her 17 years of service to Air Canada," Davies wrote.

He ordered Cheema's penalty should be reconsidered by an arbitrator, with "specific regard to the principle of proportionality and the need to provide transparent reasons."