20 Month Wrongful Dismissal Award for Employee Upheld

The Ontario Court of Appeal has released several wrongful dismissal decisions over the past few months.  It has also released some employment law cases that are not specifically wrongful dismissal.  This is a first of a group of blogs to review those cases and provide some commentary.  There is no clear pattern to the decisions.  In some cases, the Ontario Court of Appeal has been very sympathetic to employees and to employee rights.  In other cases, the Court has shown a willingness to side squarely with employers, particularly when dealing with certain contractual clauses.  Ultimately, these cases seem to be dependent on the particular facts – as well as the particular panel of judges hearing the appeal.

Brake v. PJ-M2R Restaurant Inc. (2017) ONCA 402, is one of those wrongful dismissal cases in which the Court has sided with the dismissed employee completely.

Esther Brake was a McDonald’s restaurant manager for more than 25 years.  She had been working with a specific franchise owner for more than 20 years.  For most of her career, she had been given excellent performance reviews.

After years of receiving excellent reviews, she was given her first negative review in late 2011.  She was then transferred to a poor-performing location, one of the worst locations of all the McDonald’s in Canada.  Ostensibly, this was done to enable her to improve her performance.  After three months at the new location, she was called into a meeting and told that she was being put on a 90 day performance review program due to her poor performance.  The program included goals that were found to be “arbitrary and unfair” and very difficult to meet.  At the end of the 90 day program, in mid-2012, the employer gave Ms Brake a choice between accepting  a demotion and being fired, claiming that she had “failed” the program.  Ms Brake refused the demotion.  She brought a lawsuit for constructive dismissal.  She was successful at trial.  The trial judge held that this was a wrongful dismissal and awarded Ms Brake 20 months’ pay plus legal costs.

The trial judge had ruled that Ms Brake had not been given a sufficient and reasonable opportunity to correct issues that the employer may have had with her performance.  She was “set up to fail.”  The decision to demote her was “substantial and fundamental” and was a constructive dismissal.

The employer appealed on several grounds, all of which were dismissed.

The Court of Appeal came to the following conclusions, some of which will be quite helpful to other dismissed employees.

  1.  If a trial judge reviews the evidence carefully, articulates the relevant legal principles and applies those principles to the facts, the trial judge’s decision will be entitled to reasonable deference from the Court of Appeal;
  2. A demotion from a managerial or supervisory position to one that is non-supervisory is a constructive dismissal and does constitute a substantial or fundamental change to a an employee’s position;
  3. Despite the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Evans v. Teamsters, Local 31, an employee is NOT obliged to mitigate damages after being dismissed by accepting an offer of continued employment with the same employer in an atmosphere of hostility, embarrassment or humiliation.  In this case, it would have been unreasonable to require Ms Brake to continue working in the demoted role.
  4. A credit letter provided by the employer confirming years of service can be relied upon to demonstrate the length of service of the employee. The trial judge in this case was entitled to award 2o months to a 20 year McDonald’s employee.  The notice award was well within the reasonable range.
  5. With respect to mitigation – the Court of Appeal noted that any amounts earned during the statutory notice and/or severance period are NOT deductible from the dismissal award.  In other words, a 20 year employee would be entitled to 8 weeks’ statutory notice pay and 20 weeks’ statutory severance pay under the Ontario Employment Standards Act.  Any earnings during those first 28 weeks would NOT reduce the amount owing to the employee.
  6. The Court also noted that part time income that the employee was earning or could have earned while working in the previous position is not necessarily deducted from damages, especially in cases where the part-time employment is a continuation of part-time employment that the employee had while working in her or his old position.
  7. The Court concluded by noting that some income earned during the notice period need not be deducted from the damages award if the income is not really a “substitute” for the original loss of income.  The Court noted that the income earned was part of the income that the employee could have earned anyways, even if she had still been working for the employer.  The Court expressly stated that EI payments are NOT to be deducted from the amount owed by the employer in a wrongful dismissal case.

Having dismissed all of the grounds of appeal, the Court of Appeal awarded costs in the sum of $19,500 for the appeal, which would be in addition to the costs awarded at trial.

For the most part, these points are not particularly new.  Much of this decision is a review by the Court of Appeal of the trial judge’s factual findings and the trial judge’s application of wrongful dismissal and constructive dismissal law to those factual findings.

However, the case does illustrate that the Court of Appeal can be very sympathetic to employees in specific cases.  In this case, Justices Gillese, Feldman and Pepall were wholly supportive of the decision of the trial judge and have provided a decision that fully vindicates the rights of the dismissed employee.

As I will note in my other blog posts, some other employees who have come before the Ontario Court of Appeal recently have had measurably less success.  Of course the panels have been different.  Aside from the specific factual details of the particular case, it is quite clear that the specific judges who form part of any particular Court of Appeal panel will also have a major effect on the outcome of almost any employment law case.

Constructively Dismissed Employee Not Required to Return to Work

Is a constructively dismissed employee required to return to work to “mitigate damages?”  This issue has attracted a great deal of judicial attention across Canada.  Since the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Evans v. Teamsters Local Union No. 31, courts across the country have held that employees can be required to return to work after being dismissed, if asked to do so by their former employers, as a way of mitigating damages.  If they refuse to do so, they risk losing all of their wrongful dismissal damages.

In a recent Ontario decision, the Court of Appeal weighed in on this issue with a decision that is quite helpful for constructively dismissed employees – finally.  In Farwell v. Citair Inc., a decision released on March 7, 2014, the Court of Appeal upheld a trial court decision that the plaintiff was not required to return to work after being constructively dismissed in order to mitigate his damages.

The plaintiff, Ken Farwell, had worked for the defendant for 38 years.  He was 58 years of age and was working as the Vice President of Operations.  The defendant restructured and transferred the plaintiff to the role of Purchasing Manager.  The plaintiff took the position that he had been constructively dismissed.  He resigned and brought a lawsuit.

The trial court judge held that the plaintiff had been constructively dismissed.    The new position would have involved a significant demotion and loss of prestige and status.  Monetarily, it would have left the plaintiff with a lower bonus even though other component of his compensation would have remained the same.  Overall, the demotion from VP Operations to Purchasing Manager was held to have been a constructive dismissal.

The defendant argued that the plaintiff failed to mitigate his damages by refusing to work out the notice period in the new position after having been constructively dismissed.  The trial court judge rejected this argument.  Morissette J. held that an employee is not required to work in “an atmosphere of hostility, embarrassment or humiliation.”  The court considered factors including “work atmosphere, stigma and loss of dignity.”  It concluded that it would have been objectively humiliating for the plaintiff to have returned to work.

On appeal, the defendant challenged several rulings of the trial court judge.

The Ontario Court of Appeal had little difficulty in concluding that the plaintiff had been constructively dismissed when he was demoted.  It also upheld the 24 month notice period quite summarily.

The real issue for the Court of Appeal was whether the plaintiff should have been required to return to work to mitigate his damages after having been constructively dismissed.  If the Court of Appeal had agreed with the defendant, it would have become virtually impossible to bring a constructive dismissal lawsuit successfully.

The Court of Appeal begins its discussion with a favourable interpretation of the Evans decision as one which promotes the efficient breach of contract.  The Court of Appeal lauds the effects of this decision, in general.

However, the Court then declines to overturn the trial court ruling on mitigation.  It grudgingly accepts that the plaintiff was not required to work in a lesser role after having been constructively dismissed since the trial court judge had held that this would have been “objectively humiliating.”

The crux of the matter, however, according to the Court of Appeal, is that the plaintiff was not asked to return and work out the notice period after having been constructively dismissed.  If the employer had asked him to return to the same position he had held, for the balance of the notice period, he would have been required to do so.  Here, the Court of Appeal held that there was no evidence of an appropriate return to work offer, after the plaintiff had been constructively dismissed.

This is quite a helpful case for constructively dismissed employees after a string of stinging defeats in courts across Canada. The decision suggests that if there is a constructive dismissal of the type that involves a significant demotion, the employee will not be required to mitigate damages by working out the notice period in the lesser role.  This contrasts with cases like Evans where the employee is asked to return to work in the same position – after being dismissed – actually or constructively.

The Farwell decision means that constructive dismissal lawsuits are still alive in Ontario.  If there is a provable case of demotion, loss of status, loss of prestige and perhaps, embarassment, the employee will not be required to return to work.  That being said, this may not be the last word on this line of cases.  Stay tuned and tread carefully.

 

 

 

Wins Wrongful Dismissal: But Fails to Mitigate

In another blow to dismissed employees. a B.C. court has reduced the wrongful dismissal damages that would have been owing to an employee after the employee failed to return to work when “recalled.”  This follows a number of decisions across Canada including cases in Ontario, B.C. and even at the Supreme Court.  It has become quite clear that if an employee refuses to return to work when asked to return, even after being wrongfully dismissed, it may be very risky for the employee to refuse.

In the case of Hooge v. Gillwood Remanufacturing Inc., the plaintiff was a 36 year employee, working as a production supervisor at the time of dismissal.  He was put on a “lay off” by his employer without any advance notice or pay.  The defendant company claimed that it had the right to “lay off” the employee under the B.C. Employment Standards Act.  The plaintiff alleged that he had been dismissed and sued for wrongful dismissal.  One week after he filed his lawsuit, the employer purported to “recall” him back to work.

At trial, the B.C. Supreme Court held that the employee had in fact been constructively dismissed. The plaintiff had not had a written employment contract in place.  When he was put on a lay off, he was told that it was “indefinite” and that there were no plans to recall him.  He was given an ROE that said “shortage of work.”  The B.C. court agreed with the plaintiff that there was no term of his employment that would have permitted a “lay off” without pay after all of these years of employment.  He was, in fact, constructively dismissed and was entitled to eighteen months’ compensation.

However, the Court proceeded to look at the issue of mitigation.  “The law is clear that in certain circumstances an employee who declines an offer of re-employment from the same employer after having been dismissed, whether actually or constructively, may be found to failed to mitigate his damages, and have any award reduced on account of such failure to mitigate.”  As long as it would have been “reasonable” in all of the circumstances for the plaintiff to return to work, he or she may be obligated to do so.  The court discussed Evans. v. Teamsters Local Union No. 31  as well as other B.C. cases including Davies v. Fraser Collection Services Ltd. 2008 B.C.S.C. 942 and Besse v. Dr. A.S. Machner Inc. 2009 BCSC 1216.

Ultimately, the court concluded that the evidence did not establish acrimony, mistreatment, belittling, embarrassing actions or undermining of authority in the workplace.  The court concluded that the plaintiff should have returned to the same position, on the same terms and conditions, at the same rate of pay.  Here is the court’s reasoning:

“It seems to me that an employer who has laid-off an employee, or wrongfully terminated an employee without due notice, may very well come to the conclusion, particularly with the benefit of legal advice that its actions constituted a wrongful dismissal and may seek to mitigate its own exposure to the payment of damages by offering to re-hire the employee.”

Here, the court held that the plaintiff should have returned to work.

Fortunately, in this case, all was not lost for the plaintiff.  The defendant locked out its unionized employees and ceased operations approximately seven months after purporting to recall the plaintiff.  The court held that the plaintiff would not have been paid during the lock-out, so he would not have been able to mitigate his damages during that time period.  Nevertheless, he was docked 7 1/2 months’ pay for the time period during which he would have been able to work if he had returned to work when recalled.

This case, from a B.C. perspective, reinforces the interpretation of Evans that has become the law across Canada.  Employees who are fired, laid-off or otherwise dismissed – and then offered a return to work – even after they file a lawsuit, must be very careful in deciding how to answer the employer’s offer.  Refusing to return to work and then continuing a lawsuit can be very costly.

There is something to be said for the notion that employers might have made a mistake and should be entitled to reverse a decision and have an employee come back to work.  After all, in the unionized context, an employee can be reinstated.

However, more often than not, this type of case will simply be used by a range of employers looking to play games.  Employers can try to “lay off” employees without offering anything.  Then, if the employee sues, they can “recall” the employee.  This gives employers a way to try firing someone while minimizing the risk of owing any severance.  It seems to open up the door to all kinds of abuses by the types of employers that might choose to act unethically.  Certainly, there are situations in which employers may have a good faith “change of heart” or are otherwise justified in changing their minds and reversing a decision to dismiss an employee.

But that does not necessarily seem to be the case in many of the situations I see.  This line of case law creates uncertainty, economic and emotional stress for employees, and also makes it difficult to settle some cases reasonably, both from an employee and employer perspective.  Nevertheless, employees who ignore these decisions may be making a very costly mistake.

 

 

Former Manager Awarded $100,000 in Constructive Dismissal Suit

Constructive dismissal lawsuits can be very challenging.  Many judges seem to feel that employees should continue to work for their empl0yers even if significant employment terms have been changed.  Nevertheless, where an employee is faced with a significant reduction in compensation or a clear demotion, a constructive dismissal suit may be appropriate and successful.

In a recent Ontario Superior Court decision, Jodoin v. Nissan Canada Inc. a former employee of Nissan Canada was awarded more than $100,000 in wrongful dismissal damages as a result of a successful claim for constructive dismissal.

Harry Jodoin had been working for Nissan for more than 10 years.  Just before his demotion, he was a Senior Manager in charge of retail sales and sponsorships.  He controlled a budget of more than $30 Million.

In December 2010, Mr. Jodoin was told that he was being moved into the role of Senior Manager of Vehicle Preparation Programme.  There was no job description for this position.  No employees would report to Mr. Jodoin.  There was no private office, no budget and no long term goals in place.  In fact, Mr. Jodoin was initially moved from an office into a cubicle in a high traffic area with little privacy.

The court accepted all of this evidence and concluded that Mr. Jodoin had been constructively dismissed by Nissan.  In coming to this conclusion, the court held that since Mr. Jodoin had been demoted, he was not required to continue to remain in the position (as a way of “mitigating his damages.”).  The court noted that Mr. Jodoin continued to work for about a month and a half before taking the position that he had been constructively dismissed.  However, the court concluded that this was a reasonable time period.

The court awarded Mr. Jodoin damages for the full time that he was out of work, which in this case amounted to approximately 9 months.  The damages included compensation for base salary, benefits, the company vehicle, the incentive plan and the RRSP plan.  This all added up to more than $100,000 plus interest and legal costs.

This case demonstrates that constructive dismissal law suits are still alive and well in Ontario.  However, an employee bringing this type of claim will need to demonstrate an objectively clear demotion or a significant reduction in pay.  Job changes that do not amount to a demotion may not be sufficient.  Fortunately for Mr. Jodoin, he was able to convince the court that a reasonable, objective person would agree that he had been demoted.  Many employees who allege constructive dismissal are not as fortunate.

Bringing this type of lawsuit in the wrong circumstances can be a very costly mistake.  It can be come even less worthwhile if the dismissed employee is able to find new employment quickly.  Nevertheless, employees who are out of work for some significant time period may find it quite worthwhile to proceed with this type of claim.

 

Quitting Your Job in Style? Think Carefully!

Thinking of quitting your job in dramatic fashion?  Make sure to think things through carefully before making any rash decisions.  Many employees find themselves in very stressful positions and are looking for the right time to leave.  Many of us feel overworked and under-appreciated.  Some find themselves working for abusive bosses.  Or sometimes, a great opportunity comes a long and there is a chance to move to greener pastures.  In any of these situations, there are always things to consider when making the decision to quit.

Employees are often tempted to leave with an exclamation mark.  This can be motivated by a desire to get even or get revenge for unfair treatment.  It may be a letter circulated to the entire company and its customers, a harsh letter sent to the boss or a posting on social media.  I have seen many situations where these actions come back to haunt the employees.  While this is not to say that these actions are never a good idea, they are often more trouble than they are worth.  This post looks at some of the issues you should consider when quitting a job – from an employment law perspective.

First, a recent example of an “I quit” video by Marina Shifrin:

As you may know by now, this video, at the item of writing of this blog, has had more than 8 million hits on YouTube.  From a Canadian employment law perspective, the video is really not that bad.  Ms Shifrin mentions that she was employed at a great place.  She avoids slandering her past employer.  And ultimately, she probably helps get them lots of publicity.  She may well have generated job offers for herself in the process – and probably a variety of personal offers as well.  Sure there are some vindictive employers out there who might try to bring some kind of lawsuit in a response to a video like this, but that would probably not be the best corporate marketing strategy.

Here, the company recognized that the video might be more helpful than harmful.  So, it produced its own response, which it is also using to recruit new employees, sending the message that it is a fun place to work.  The company’s responding video does not slander the departing employee – and in fact wishes her well:

As much fun as these videos might be, not everyone is about to make an “I quit!” video or other production.  Most people would probably get themselves into quite a bit of trouble trying to do it properly and safely.

Whether you are thinking of making a video or not, here are some legal issues to consider when quitting a job in Canada:

1.  Unpaid Bonuses:  If you are with a company that has a bonus plan in place, you may not be eligible for the bonus (even an accrued portion of it) unless you are working at the time the bonuses are paid.  Some employees have received a great new employment offer  and cannot wait around with the old company to collect the bonus.  If this is the case, you may want to ask the new employer for a signing bonus to compensate for the amounts you are losing.  You might also want to check your employment contract and see whether you will be disqualified from the bonus if you leave before bonus time.

2.  Restrictive Covenants:  If you have an employment contract in place (which can even be an offer letter, from when you started or some later point in time), you may want to get that reviewed carefully by an employment lawyer before agreeing to go and work for a competitor. There may be steps you can take to minimize the potential difficulties.  The covenants may not even be enforceable.  If they are, or even if they might be, you may be able to get an indemnity for any legal fees and costs from the new employer.  But you should deal with this issue properly before accepting the new position.

3.  E.I. Eligibility:  If you are quitting and you do not have a job lined up, you may not be eligible for Employment Insurance benefits unless you can prove that you were forced to quit (or left with no choice).  Make sure you have a plan lined up for how you intend to support yourself.

4.  Constructive Dismissal:  If you believe that you have been forced to quit, either as a result of a reduction in pay, a demotion or a poisoned work environment, this is probably something that you should mention in a resignation letter.  It can harm a constructive dismissal case where an employee sends a glowing resignation letter about how wonderful everyone has been in the workplace and then tries to allege “poisoned work environment.”  If you are considering a constructive dismissal claim, you should probably get legal advice before you quit.

5.  References:  Employees quitting a job are often concerned about potential references.  If you have been severely mistreated and have a legitimate constructive dismissal claim, it may be more important to take actions that support the claim than to worry about the reference from this particular employer.  In fact, negotiating a mutually agreeable reference may ultimately be part of the claim.  But in most other cases, leaving employment in a classy way will help ensure a decent reference from your former employer.  You may even be able to get some helpful, written reference letters on your way out the door or some assurances that people will respond favourably when called.

6.  Company Property:  In most cases, employees are required to return all company property including computers, cell phones, vehicles and documentation in hard and soft copy form.  There have been cases where employees have downloaded company documentation and information to local drives or even personal devices before leaving their employment.  This can provide the basis for a lawsuit to be brought by the company you.  Not a good idea!

7. New Employment ContractIf you are going to be accepting employment with a new employer, it goes without saying that you should ensure that you have received and accepted a signed offer of employment before submitting a resignation letter.  You should consider having this new employment offer reviewed by a qualified employment lawyer.  There may be clauses in the agreement that affect your future severance or your future ability to work elsewhere. There may be other clauses that have a major impact on your legal rights.  Don’t assume that you are simply being given a “standard offer” and that is is “non-negotiable.”  This is rarely true.

8.  It’s a Small World:  In most industries, the world is a lot smaller than we might think.  Word gets around about actions that people take, especially if the actions are inappropriate.  In the vast majority of cases, it is best to leave in style, with a classy, professional note to the employer.  Who knows, you may find yourself working with, or even for, some of these people a lot sooner than you might have expected.

 

 

 

 

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