Deficient Notice Clause Upheld by Ontario CA in Dismissal Case

A recent decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal, involving a deficient notice clause, illustrates the perils of attempting self-representation in a wrongful dismissal case.  In the case of Musoni v. Logitek Technology Ltd., the case appears to have been decided without some of the key arguments relating to the validity of employment contracts even being raised.

The plaintiff worked as a customer support agent from October 2005 to March 6, 2008, a total of about 2 1/2 years.  Six months after the plaintiff began his employment, he signed an employment agreement.  The agreement included a clause which provided for fifteen days’ notice in the event of dismissal.

The plantiff was dismissed and was provided with two weeks’ severance.  He did not accept this amount and sued for $70,000 in wrongful dismissal damages.

At trial, the plaintiff noted that he had not obtained legal advice at the time he signed the contract.  However, he apparently agreed at trial that the agreement was “valid and in force.”  (This is really a legal conclusion rather than a factual matter).   Instead of arguing that he was owed more notice – and that the employment agreement was not valid, the plaintiff alleged the defendant had dismissed him for improper reasons, relating to his record of offences.

The trial judge concluded that since the plaintiff was dismissed on a “without cause” basis, he was only entitled to the minimum amount provided for in the employment agreement.  The reason for his dismissal was held to be irrelevant.  The lawsuit was dismissed and the plaintiff was ordered to pay the defendant’s costs in the sum of $5,012.

The plaintiff appealed to the Court of Appeal and represented himself once again.  The Court of Appeal upheld the employment contract and dismissed the case, ordering the plaintiff to pay another $3,500.

The striking aspect of this case is the arguments that do not appear to have been put before the trial judge or the Court of Appeal or considered by one of the two levels of court.

Firstly, the employment agreement  that the defendant relied upon was provided to the plaintiff six months after he commenced employment.  There is no suggestion in the trial decision that any new consideration was provided to the plaintiff.  Based on a number of cases that have previously been decided by the Ontario Court of Appeal, the employment agreement should have been thrown out for lack of consideration (See for example Hobbs v. TDI Canada Ltd.) Interestingly, one of the Court of Appeal judges who sat on the panel that decided Hobbs v. TDI Canada Ltd., Justice MacPherson, was on the panel in this case of Musoni v. Logitek Technology Ltd.  Yet there is no mention of any consideration argument.

Secondly, even if the employment agreement had been provided to the plaintiff in exchange for some new consideration, it contained a clause that provided for only 15 days notice.  If the plaintiff had been working for the defendant for three years, this 15 days would have been less than the minimum notice required under the Ontario Employment Standards Act, 2000 (21 days rather than 15).  At four years, it would have been significantly less, no matter what type of calculation is used.  These types of clauses that will eventually amount to less than the minimum amount required by statutory provision have been held to be void by Canadian courts.  (See, for example Shore v. Ladner Downs, a decision of the B.C. Court of Appeal).

It seems likely that if this case had been argued properly, the plaintiff should have been entitled to between 3 and 6 months’ notice, based on his annual income of $47,000.  Instead, he wound up with 15 days’ notice and a bill for the defendant’s costs of more than $8,500.  The case is an illustration of a situation in which the courts will not come up with the proper arguments for the unrepresented plaintiff.  So the plaintiff is ultimately left with a brutal result and only himself to sue for professional negligence – for not having raised some key legal arguments that any competent employment lawyer would have put forward.

A final note: Given that the case was probably only worth three or four months’ compensation, the proper place for this case would have been Ontario Small Claims Court, which has a monetary limit of $25,000, rather than the Ontario Superior Court.  Ouch!


Does Forced Geographic Relocation Constitute Constructive Dismissal?

Constructive dismissal in Canada is a fundamental breach of an employment contract that allows an employee to act as if he or she has been dismissed and obtain compensation.  Successful claims can result in significant awards for wrongful dismissal damages.  However, employees must be cautious when making constructive dismissal claims.  If they act too early or with improper advice, they can find themselves on the losing end of an expensive lawsuit, with no interim income.

At the very easy end of the constructive dismissal spectrum are cases where employers unilaterally reduce an employee’s pay, with little or no notice.  Similarly, a significant demotion for an employee, even where the overall compensation is kept intact will usually be grounds for a constructive dismissal claim.  But there are many other cases that are in a much greyer area.  The reduction of some responsibilities, a change in reporting structure and sometimes, a change to the terms of a bonus plan, are all the types of changes that may not lead to clear results.

What about geographic relocation?  Can employees be asked to move as part of their employment?  Intuitively, one might have thought the answer would usually be “no.”  Although this might often be the case, the legal answer can depend on the context and the particular background.  Has the employee moved around before as part of the position?  Is the industry one in which employees are routinely expected to relocate?  Is the employer paying for moving expenses?  Is the employer offering any other alternatives?  These are all factors to consider.

In a recent case, the Alberta Court of Appeal (Robin Brown v. Pronghorn Controls Ltd.) held that a transfer from Red Deer, Alberta to Sedgwick, Alberta, approximately two hours away, was not a constructive dismissal.  The Court held the employee would be a branch manager in both places and would be entitled to the same terms and benefits, despite the disruption to his family life.

Vulnerable Employees Need Protection

This Article appeared in The Lawyers Weekly on December 24, 2004

The Ontario Court of Appeal has emphatically confirmed that an employment contract signed without new consideration is invalid.  In doing so, the Court has produced another addition to a growing line of strongly worded decisions that emphasizes the need to protect vulnerable employees.

In Hobbs v. TDI Canada Ltd., released on December 1, 2004, the Court limited the application of Techform v. Wolda (2001), 56 O.R. (3d) 1 (C.A.) and reaffirmed its decision in Francis v. CIBC (1994), 21 O.R. (3d) 75, which held that an employment contract that is presented to an employee and signed after the employee begins new employment is unenforceable unless some new consideration is provided.

The successful appellant in the most recent decision, Alan Hobbs, was a salesperson, selling transit advertising.  When his old company lost its major source of revenue, the successful bidder – the respondents – offered him a position to work with his old clients.  Hobbs had oral discussions with the respondents – who agreed to pay Hobbs certain negotiated commission rates.  Shortly afterwards, the respondents provided an offer letter that offered a draw of $60,000 against commission, with details on the rates to follow.  On the basis of that letter, Hobbs quit his old job and agreed to join TDI.

A few days after he started working for TDI, Hobbs was presented with a new document, an employment contract, which he was told was “non-negotiable.”  The document set out a range of terms relating to calculation of commissions including terms that limited TDI’s obligation to pay commissions in the event that Hobbs resigned or was dismissed.  Having already left his old employer and having started work for his new employer, Hobbs signed the new document.

After a number of months, Hobbs began asking TDI when he would be paid commissions owing.  He was only being paid a draw and a monthly car allowance and was growing impatient waiting for a reconciliation.  Hobbs quit his employment with TDI and asked for a reconciliation of commissions against draw.

Relying on the new document, the “employment contract,” TDI maintained that Hobbs was only entitled to be paid commissions if his full annual draw was exceeded – even though he had only worked for 5 months.  TDI refused to pay Hobbs commissions on his actual billings weighed against the draw that was actually paid to him.  Hobbs sued for commissions owing on the $3.1 million worth of sales that he had sold for TDI, which all agreed was subject to commission of 6%.

At trial, Justice Peter Jarvis of the Ontario Superior Court dismissed the action. ([2003] O.J. No. 2646])  Justice Jarvis held that the new document that Hobbs signed after starting work with TDI was a “second installment” of the contract.  He held that since Hobbs had read and signed the contract, he was bound by it even though it was only provided to him after he started work and even though it contained “onerous” terms.

In his reasons, Justice Jarvis also held that the Court was bound by Techform v. Wolda and that forbearance from dismissal is adequate consideration in this type of situation.  The Court also relied on a 1935 Supreme Court of Canada decision, Maguire v. Northland Drug Co. [1935] S.C.R. 312, which arrived at the same conclusion.

In overturning the trial Court decision, the Ontario Court of Appeal rejected the two installment analysis.  It held that Hobbs had not been shown the “second installment” and had no way of anticipating its onerous terms.  The second document was only provided to Hobbs after he started working and therefore required some new consideration if it were to be enforceable.

The Court of Appeal then considered whether Hobbs was provided with any such new consideration.  In distinguishing Techform v. Wolda, the Court noted that there was no evidence in Hobbs’ case that the respondent TDI wanted or intended to terminate Hobbs’ employment prior to having him sign the second document.  Although TDI may have told him that he had to sign the document to keep his job, there was no explicit or tacit promise of forbearance from dismissal.  The Court therefore ruled that there was no consideration and the agreement was unenforceable.  The Court held that Hobbs was entitled to $52,779, the amount billed and collected up to the effective date of his resignation.

Finally, the Court of Appeal reiterated the proper procedure for having employees sign standard form employment contracts – which had been set out by Madam Justice Weiler in Francis v. CIBC:

Employers should state “in the original offer of employment that the offer is conditional upon the prospective employee agreeing to accept the terms of the employer’s standard form of agreement, a copy of which could be enclosed with the offering letter.”

In light of the Court’s most recent decision, anything short of this procedure will jeopardize the enforceability of any newly imposed employment contract in the absence of fresh consideration.

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