Just Cause for Dismissal: Is One Incident Enough?

Is one incident of dishonesty just cause for dismissal?  What if it involves a long-serving employee?  This was the issue that was decided recently by the B.C. Court of Appeal in  Steel v. Coast Capital Savings Credit Union.  

The plaintiff, Susan Steel, was a help desk analyst.  She had been employed by the Credit Union for 21 years.  In 2008, the plaintiff accessed the personal folder of a manager.  The manager kept a folder for assigning parking spaces and the plaintiff wanted to check her status.  She was caught because the manager was accessing the folder at the very same time.  She was confronted and admitted her misconduct.  She also acknowledged that she did not have authorization.

At trial, the judge reviewed the case law, focusing on the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark decision in McKinley v. B.C. Tel (2001) SCC 38. The court dismissed the case and found that Ms Steel had been dismissed for just cause.  The plaintiff appealed to the B.C. Court of Appeal.

By a 2-1 majority decision, the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the trial court decision and dismissed the appeal.  As the Court of Appeal put it, “McKinley requires courts to apply a contextual analysis to determine whether employee misconduct amounts to just cause for dismissal….Following McKinley, a single act of dishonesty as a matter of law no longer gives an employer an absolute right to dismissal its employee.”

However, the Court of Appeal also noted that “a single act of misconduct can justify dismissal if the misconduct is of a sufficient character to cause the irreparable breakdown of the employment relationship.”

The majority of the court held that a breach of privacy was such a fundamental obligation in this type of employment position that the plaintiff’s action could be seen as causing a “fundamental breakdown of the employment relationship.”

In dissenting reasons, Justice Donald included this sentence:  “What is absent from the trial judge’s reasons is an explanation why a single instance of a breach of the privacy rules should end a 21 year career….The record does not show deceit, fraud, theft or stealth.  The misconduct was serious, as the judge found, but her analysis of the proportionality of the penalty left out a vital factor.”  Justice Donald would have allowed the appeal and remitted the case to the trial judge for an assessment of damages.

The McKinley decision has been cited many times and has been interpreted in different ways.  In some cases, it has been used to help dismissed plaintiffs obtain damages where many people might find the results to be puzzling and overly sympathetic.  In other cases, courts have limited the application of McKinley to minor or more limited instances of dishonesty or misconduct.

Ultimately, each judge applies his or own sense of “proportion” and reasonableness.  Here two appellate court judges held that one instance of this type of dishonesty was cause for dismissal, whereas one judge disagreed.

For plaintiffs and for employers these are risky cases.  They are fact driven.  But they also depend on sensibilities of the particular judge hearing the case as well as the appellate court panel that might hear the case if it is appealed.

For Susan Steel, this was a very costly and time consuming ordeal.  The Court of Appeal decision was released in 2015, some seven years after Ms Steel was dismissed.  Ultimately, she has been awarded nothing after 21 years of employment and may well have incurred significant legal fees.  The case is a reminder of the high stakes of pursuing just cause litigation where an undisputed instance of improper conduct is involved.

 

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