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.

 

Dismissal of Ghomeshi: Some Employment Law Points

The dismissal of Jian Ghomeshi from the CBC continues to dominate headlines. At this point, however, it has really become much more of a case about sexual assault and the criminal proceedings that Ghomeshi faces rather than about the employment law aspects of the case. I am not going to delve into the criminal law aspects of this matter or get into a discussion about sexual assault laws in Canada. Instead, I wanted to highlight some of the employment law points that emerged from the case.

A CBC spokesperson announced earlier this week that Ghomeshi had dropped his $55M lawsuit against the CBC. According to the CBC, Ghomeshi agreed to a dismissal of the case and to pay $18,000 towards the CBC’s legal costs. Wow, what an embarrassing result; a total victory for the CBC.  In hockey terms, that is the equivalent of an 8-0 loss, something that Toronto Maple Leaf fans have been known to experience (even if the CBC will have fewer future occasions to broadcast these matches). Ghomeshi can still pursue a grievance arbitration, if his union decides to take the case to a hearing. But the only courtroom he is likely to encounter now will be a criminal court, if his case winds up going to trial.

I discussed some of the employment law aspects of his case here when some of initial details began emerging. Now that the case is effectively over, it is worth highlighting a few additional points:

  1. The best defence is not always an outrageous offence:

Although there are some very aggressive employment lawyers in Toronto, a pre-emptive strategy is simply not always the best course of action. Some Canadians might be tempted to think that a strategy that worked in the past for former Prime Minister Mulroney must be a sensible one. But each case has its own facts. Sometimes employees facing a dismissal with cause are able to negotiate a quiet resolution of their situation that involves minimal publicity and perhaps even a mutually agreeable statement about the person’s departure. It is far from clear that Mr. Ghomeshi would have been able to arrange that type of deal with the CBC. But a strategy of posting a lengthy message on Facebook, launching an outrageous, ill-conceived claim and remaining defiant is extremely risky at the best of times. It does not seem to have served Mr. Ghomeshi very well in this case.

  1. Appropriate legal representation

Unionized employees face a tremendous uphill battle in trying to sue their former employers. Generally, they are prohibited from bringing such cases. If they wish to proceed, they must show that the lawsuit raises issues that our outside of the scope of the employment relationship and can stand on their own as independent torts or causes of action. In Mr. Ghomeshi’s case, he claimed, among other things, that he was dismissed because the CBC made a moral judgment about his lifestyle choice. That type of pleading almost certainly doomed this lawsuit from the start.

Employment lawyers are left scratching their heads. We must prepare a pleading that stands a decent chance of surviving the requirements that have been set out by the Supreme Court of Canada. If this cannot be done, clients will usually be advised that the claim has no chance of success. Mr. Ghomeshi may well have been provided with that advice. However, Mr. Ghomeshi’s decision to proceed with such an ill-fated claim, even after having been provided with the assessment that success was virtually impossible seems highly questionable, at best, on the part of Mr. Ghomeshi and his legal team.

  1. Resolving an unwinnable case

The CBC did not even bother putting in a Statement of Defence in response to Mr. Ghomeshi’s claim. There was no need to do so. Instead, it simply brought a preliminary motion to strike out the claim as one that disclosed no real cause of action. Normally, that is a difficult standard to meet. Moreover, if a plaintiff becomes concerned that the case is unwinnable or that there are reasons to drop it (like the prospect of criminal charges), this can often be done on terms that are close to neutral for the plaintiff. Many defendants will agree to a consent dismissal of a lawsuit without the payment of any legal costs. If legal costs are to be paid, most defendants will agree to some type of confidentiality provision. In this case, Mr. Ghomeshi appears to have surrendered completely. His case was dismissed with costs. It was announced publicly. And it was also announced that he was forced to pay the CBC’s legal fees of $18,000. While there are certainly cases in which a plaintiff is ordered to pay the defendant’s costs after losing an actual trial, it is quite rare for a plaintiff to pay legal costs just for the privilege of dropping a lawsuit. Obviously, there are many facts that the public has not been told and it became quite clear to Ghomeshi and his lawyers that he was likely to wind up paying a much higher amount in legal fees if the case was dismissed by court after hearing the motion.

Overall, the case has been a reminder that lawyers cannot work miracles. Sometimes the best strategy for dismissed employees facing strong just cause cases is to negotiate the best possible, confidential, walk-away resolution. If that cannot be done, steps should still be taken to minimize the potential damage rather than exacerbate it.

Less Money for Dismissal in Tough Economic Times?

Should a dismissed employee be entitled to less severance when the employer is facing tough economic times?  This was the question facing an Ontario Superior Court judge recently in Gristey v. Emke Schaab Climatecare Inc, a case released on March 20, 2014.  According to the trial court judge, the answer was yes.

The plaintiff had worked in residential gas installation for 12 years for the defendant.  He was earning an income of approximately $55,000 annually, though it fluctuated depending on the availability of work.  He was dismissed after 12 years of service on a “without cause” basis.  A number of other employees were also dismissed at the time.

At the time of dismissal, the defendant offered to pay the plaintiff a total of 8 weeks’ pay, which was the minimum that would have been owed under the Ontario Employment Standards Act.  It asked for a signed release.  The plaintiff refused and brought a claim for wrongful dismissal.  The defendant paid out the 8 weeks’ pay.

At trial, the defendant argued that business was slow.  It took the position that the plaintiff would have have worked a very small number of hours if he had not been dismissed and that his damages would have been reduced to a very nominal amount.  The trial judge rejected the argument that there was sufficient evidence to draw this conclusion.  In other words, the court concluded that the plaintiff still would have earned an income if he had not been dismissed.

However, the trial judge expressly accounted for tough economic times in assessing the notice period.  First, the judge concluded that the appropriate notice period should have been 12 months.  This is probably a reasonable conclusion, based on all of the common law factors.  The plaintiff was 52 when he was dismissed.  Looking at all of the common law factors, including length of service, position, age, availability of comparable work and other relevant factors, a 12 month award would have made sense.

Justice Conlan then proceeded to reduce the plaintiff’s award by four months’ pay because of the “market and economic health of the [defendant]” at the time of dismissal.  In doing so, the court relied on the decision of Bohemier v. Storwal International, (1982) CanLii 1764 (Ont S.C.J.), a decision that had been affirmed by the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1983.

The Bohemier decision held that a notice period should be fair to both the employee and the employer.  However, as it has been interpreted subsequently by other court decisions, it did not say that the plaintiff’s notice period should be eviscerated because the employer is facing tough economic times.  In fact, if times are really tough, the dismissed employee will have a more difficult time finding alternate employment and could require a longer notice period.

It may be that Justice Conlan was swayed in this particular case by the fact that the plaintiff’s hours fluctuated and there might have been less work over the notice period.  Or perhaps the court was not fully convinced of the plaintiff’s mitigation efforts, even though the court expressly concluded that the plaintiff had mitigated his damages satisfactorily.  In any case, the court concluded that 12 months’ severance was too much for the plaintiff and reduced it to 8 months, expressly relying on the fact that the defendant was facing difficult economic times.

It remains to be seen whether the plaintiff will appeal this decision.  the amount at stake would be approximately $20,000.  There could also be significant legal costs at stake, depending on what types of offers to settle, if any, were exchanged between the parties before the trial.  The Ontario Court of Appeal does not like to “tinker” with notice periods if they are in a “reasonable range.”  However, the plaintiff could try arguing that the court made an error in principle by placing an overly significant emphasis on the economic challenges facing the defendant.

If this decision stands, it would be a very helpful piece of ammunition for defendants facing tough times.  Defendants can use this argument to limit severance liability in tough economic times.

For plaintiffs, it can be a real double whammy.  The employee is let go in difficult economic times, where it may well take longer to find work. Then the plaintiff faces a reduced notice period because of those same difficult economic times.  There seems to be a problem with this logic…

We will watch to see what happens with this case and how (if at all) it is applied.

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.

 

 

 

Not My Pot: Wrongfully Dismissed Courier Wins…

A wrongfully dismissed courier has won a lawsuit at the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal.  In Hollander v. Tiger Courier Inc. (2014) SKCA 7, the courier was dismissed when a package of marijuana was delivered to the office addressed to him.  He claimed it was not his package and he had no knowledge of it.  The employer called the police but no charges were laid.  However, the employer terminated the courier and alleged that it had just cause.  It was not clear from the decision what happened to the pot, but presumably the police confiscated it.

The case had an unfortunate twist.  The courier had worked as an employee with the company for ten years.  But after that, he had become an “independent contractor” and worked in that capacity for three years before this incident occurred.  He had signed an independent contractor agreement that provided for thirty days’ notice of any dismissal (without cause).

When the courier was wrongfully dismissed, he sued for breach of contract but he did not sue for wrongful dismissal.  He did not claim that he was really an “employee,” nor did he directly challenge the independent contractor agreement, although he claimed other damages flowing from breach of contract.  If the courier had been able to challenge the contract and prove “wrongful dismissal,” he might have been awarded a year’s pay or more.

However, he only alleged “breach of contract.”  As a result, the courier put himself in a situation where if were to win his lawsuit, he would win thirty days’ pay, as required under his contract.  If he were to lose, he would get nothing.

At trial, the lower court judge held that the package of pot, that had been sent to the courier from his brother in Vancouver, was “clear evidence of illegal or criminal conduct” and this would justify termination, even though no criminal charges were ever laid.

The Court of Appeal disagreed.  It overturned this finding and ruled that there was no clear evidence that the courier himself had engaged in any criminal or other misconduct.  Just because a family member delivers a package of illegal drugs to a person’s workplace, this does not mean that the person has engaged in any improper activity..or at least there is no clear evidence of such misconduct.

However, the Court of Appeal went on to award damages of only thirty days’ compensation, which amounted to the grand total of $2,973.70.   This was really a pyrrhic victory for the plaintiff.  He lost his courier job and got only 30 days’ compensation after 13 years of work.  He also lost the pot, which may well have been worth close to the amount of the judgment.  And we haven’t even mentioned legal fees…

 

 

 

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