Frustration of Contract: Disabled Employee Loses Wrongful Dismissal Case

If an employee becomes totally disabled and cannot return to work, the employer may be able to end the employment relationship without any further obligations.  This doctrine of “frustration” was recently analyzed in the case of Fraser v. UBS Global Asset Management, a decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

Linda Fraser had worked for UBS for more than 20 years.  She became ill after a holiday and was off work for six months on short term disability leave.  She tried to return to work but was unable to do so due to her illness, which had become more severe.  She went off again on short term disability leave for another six months.  After her second leave, Ms Fraser was off for a two year period on long term disability leave.

Most LTD policies change after two years.  For the first two years, Ms Fraser was required to show that she could not perform the duties of her employment, meaning the specific job that she had with UBS.  After two years, she was required to show that she could not perform the duties of any gainful occupation.  The insurer cut Ms Fraser off benefits when the definition changed and Ms Fraser sued the insurer to challenge that decision.  The lawsuit was totally separate from her wrongful dismissal case.

From UBS’ perspective, Ms Fraser’s disability coverage ended even though she was suing the insurer.  She was off work and no longer in receipt of benefits for a period of five months.  She did not keep UBS informed about her status.  After five months, UBS wrote to Ms Fraser and stated that her employment was being terminated.  It paid her out 8 weeks’ notice pay and 22 weeks’ severance pay under the Ontario Employment Standards Act and continued her extended health benefits for three more months.  Ms Fraser did not accept this decision and sued for wrongful dismissal.

At trial Justice Wein of the Ontario Superior Court reviewed the law of “frustration” and concluded that it applied in this case.  Ms Fraser was found to be “permanently disabled.”  The Court held that she is “totally disabled and her disability is permanent such that she will never be able to work again.”  As a result, the employment contract had ended and UBS was not required to provide any further payments.  The wrongful dismissal lawsuit was dismissed.

For employees in Ontario, the case is a reminder that employees have an obligation to keep their employers updated as to their status when they are off on a sick leave.  If disability benefits are cut off, they must provide information to their employers about their proposed actions.  If it becomes clear that the employee will not be able to return to work again, the employer may be able to conclude that the employment relationship has ended.  This will not necessarily lead to a viable wrongful dismissal lawsuit.

For employers, this type of decision is rare.  If the employee can show that he or she simply required more time to recover and kept the employer informed, the employer will not necessarily be able to rely on “frustration.”  The situation may also be different where the employee continues to receive LTD benefits.  Employers looking to rely on “frustration” will need to be reasonably sure that the employee will not be able to return to work for the foreseeable future.

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