Probationary Employee Dismissed: Out of Luck Says ON CA

Is a probationary employee entitled to wrongful dismissal damages?  Can an employer contract out of these damages?  Until now, most Canadian court decisions have held that even a probationary employee is entitled to wrongful dismissal damages.  The exception is where the employer uses a properly worded contract.  Generally, the contract must specify the length of the period and what, if anything, the employee will be paid if dismissed during the probationary period.  An employee must be paid at least one week’s damages if the probationary period is longer than three months, since that is the amount specified by the Ontario Employment Standards Act, 2000.  But the contract must specify how much the employee will be paid if dismissed after three months, while still on “probation.”

Surprisingly, this was not the conclusion of the Ontario Court of Appeal in a recent decision.  In Nagribianko v. Select Wine Merchants Ltd., the Court reviewed a case that had been to the Ontario Small Claims Court and the Divisional Court.  The employee had signed a contract that referenced a six month probationary period.  But the contract does not appear to have specified a payment that the employer was required to provide if dismissed after the first three months.  This should have made the contract null and void in accordance with the Supreme Court of Canada’s powerful decision in Machtinger v. HOJ Industries Ltd. [1992] 1 S.C.R. 986.

The employee had worked for the employer for just less than six months.  He was dismissed on a without cause basis.  He sued for damages and was awarded four months’ compensation in the Ontario Small Claims Court.  The judge ruled that he had been induced to join the employer and that the clause did not effectively oust the employee’s common law entitlement.  This seems consistent with most of the case law.

The Ontario Divisional Court reversed the decision and held that the trial judge had failed to give effect to the probationary language.  The Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the Divisional Court’s decision and held that the term “probation” was not ambiguous. It ruled that “probationary status enables an employee to be terminated without notice during the probationary period if the employer makes a good faith determination that the employee is unsuitable for permanent employment, and provided the probationary employee was given a fair and reasonable opportunity to demonstrate their ability.”

The Appeal Court went on to conclude that the employer could not contract out of the minimum standards required by the Ontario Employment Standards Act, 2000 and that therefore the employee was entitled to one weeks’ pay, which the employee received, even though this one week’s pay was apparently not specified in the contract.

This analysis all would have been correct if the contract had specifically stated that the employee could be dismissed after three months but before six months with the payment of one week’s pay and the continuation of one week’s benefits.  However, if the contract did not say that specifically, it should have been viewed as a contract that would violate the common law case law as set out in Machtinger v. HOJ.  The contract appeared to specify that the employee could be dismissed at any time during the six months as a probationary employee with no notice or payment.  The fact that the employer paid the minimum one week’s compensation required by the ESA 2000 ought not to have fixed a poorly drafted contract.

Here, in contrast to the Brake v. PJ-M2R Restaurant Inc. that I looked at last week, the Ontario Court of Appeal weighed in heavily on the side of employers and was quite unsympathetic to what should have been a reasonable employee claim.  The decision is good news for Ontario employers, even those with poorly drafted contracts, who may now find it easier and cheaper to dismiss probationary employees.  The decision also demonstrates, as I indicated previously, that the outcome of a case at the Ontario Court of Appeal may well depend on the particular panel that is hearing the decision.  In this case, justices LaForme, Hourigan and Paciocco have issued a ruling that strongly favours employers and provides quite the contrast with the previous decision that I examined in Brake v. PJ-M2R Restaurant Inc., which went the other way.

Other recent Ontario Court of Appeal decisions have also gone in different directions and I will review two or three more of them in coming blogs.  The most significant take-away is probably a strong measure of uncertainty, which underscores the risks inherent in civil ligation and, particularly, in employment law cases.

Are Employment Contracts Negotiable?

Are the terms of employment contracts negotiable?  More often than not, the answer is yes.  But it amazes me how many people tell me that they assumed that the proposed employment contract was simply a “standard form” agreement and just signed it – even when accepting fairly high level positions.

In other posts, I have looked at the types of clauses that can be used in employment contracts and what they really mean.  You can find the most recent discussion here.

But I wanted to consider some more practical points.  Some might seem obvious.  But people holding a new job offer in hand don’t always think of everything that should be considered.  While you may be anxious to sign the employment contract and start the new job, especially if you have been out of work for some period of time, you really do need to look at the contact closely.  Not all of the terms are written in stone.

What items can be negotiated?

1. Salary.  Well, of course this is not really a legal point.  But most people realize that salary is negotiable.  So I often have employees tell me that they negotiated up the salary level of a new position – but ignored everything else in the contract.  Don’t assume that the salary is fixed.  There may well be room to improve it.  Most of the time, it can’t hurt to try.

2. Vacation and Bonus.  In a sense, these benefits go hand in hand with salary.  They are tangible items that an employer might agree to increase.  Often, both items are subject to a grid or a plan.  But I regularly see employers making agreements to increase vacation time at the request of a new hire – especially from two to three weeks or from three to four.

3. Severance.  This is crucial.  Even though it might seem like the last thing on the mind of someone who is about to be hired, it can be incredibly significant.  Some employers will use clauses that drastically limit the amount of potential severance to be paid on a dismissal.  Any clauses that say “employment standards legislation” or something similar should be questioned and considered.  They might even be deal breaking clauses.  As a result, employers will often negotiate these clauses.  If they will not, you should get proper legal advice so that you understand the implications of signing away such important and monetarily valuable rights.

4. Non-Competition Agreements: People generally realize that these clauses are significant, even if they have not had legal advice.  But I often hear employees telling me that a friend or family member told them not to worry because these clauses are rarely enforced and may not even be enforceable.  While that advice might be true sometimes, it is not always the case.  Signing a non-competition agreement – or even a “non-solicitation” agreement can greatly impact your future opportunities after leaving this new employer.  These clauses are also often negotiable, particularly the proposed time period of the restrictions.

5. Probation and Benefits Clauses.  Believe it or not, these too are negotiable items.  If an employee is being recruited from another position, the potential employer may agree to waive a probationary period and/or start benefits right away.  Sometimes a signing bonus can even be negotiated.

These are just a few of the points to consider.  Competent legal counsel can often point out a number of different clauses in a proposed employment contract that are problematic or that should be considered very carefully.  It may well be much cheaper, in the long run, to go through an employment contract review process at the outset than a legal battle at the end of a relationship.  It is usually far worse to find out, after being dismissed, that a signed employment agreement has now left you with below-market severance, enforceable post-employment restriction and no real legal alternatives.

If the employer is reasonable and is genuinely interested in treating its employees fairly, it should be prepared to negotiate reasonable provisions in all of these areas and maybe some others as well.

 

 

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…

 

 

 

Steps to Take When You’re Fired

No one likes the word “fired.”  It seems to somehow connote an “at fault” dismissal.  But realistically, under Canadian law, whether you have been downsized, restructured, dismissed, let go or “rightsized,” it all really adds up to the same thing.  Your employment has been terminated and you will no longer be working for your employer.  Here is a list of some things to consider if you are in that position:

1.  Remain Calm and Professional

This is one of the hardest things for many people. That is quite understandable, particularly if the termination has been handled poorly or is a bad faith termination.  For many dismissed employees, it will simply be a short meeting with the boss and an HR representative, or perhaps, just your supervisor.  Often, these meetings are very short and little is said.  Perhaps you are not even provided with a reason for the dismissal other than “the company is making a change.”  In any case, it is rarely helpful to argue or debate the issue.  It is almost always an irreversible decision and you will now have to move forward in the best way possible.  You should avoid the urge to do anything rash or impulsive.  Nasty emails sent around to company personnel or clients are almost never helpful, although a short and sweet goodbye note may sometimes be appropriate, if acceptable to the employer.

2.  Review the Termination Letter But Don’t Sign

Dismissals in Canada will generally be “with cause” or “without cause.”  If you are being dismissed “with cause,” you may not be offered a severance package.  If you are offered one, it may be one that is greatly reduced as compared to what you might have been entitled to receive in a without cause situation.  If the dismissal is “for cause,” it may be helpful to try to ask questions at the dismissal meeting about the allegations that are being made, the basis for the allegations and other related questions.

If the dismissal is “without cause,”  you will almost certainly be provided with a severance package.  In most cases, the employer will ask you to sign a release or some other agreement accepting the package.  You should never sign this type of document immediately.  You may well be entitled to significantly more than you are being offered by the employer.  If the termination letter references an “employment contract” that you signed when you first started, you should ask for a copy of it if you do not have ready access to it.   The employment contract may well set out the employer’s severance obligations and you may or may not be able to challenge this type of contract.  If you can’t find it, you may want to get a copy from HR, especially if it is referenced in your termination letter.

Whether a dismissal is for “cause” or “without cause,” it can still be considered a wrongful dismissal if you have not been given full proper compensation.

3.  Avoid Publicizing Immediately and Help Yourself

Although it might be tempting to immediately announce your departure on Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media, you should tread carefully.  It is usually not helpful to begin telling everyone immediately that you have been fired.  Consider contacting some close former colleagues or supervisors who may be prepared to provide you with a helpful reference or ideas about suitable job openings.  Consider some other contacts who may have ideas about the types of positions that would best suit you going forward.  Of course if there are people close to you, a spouse or partner, close friends, parents or others, it can be very helpful to share everything with these people, discuss your feelings and emotions and get support.  If you feel that your health has been affected, you should not hesitate to speak with your physician or, if appropriate, other health care providers such as a psychologist or psychotherapist.  Some people may find comfort in confiding in clergy, many of whom can be very empathetic.  Others may find it helpful to ramp up an exercise routine.  Whatever works best for you, take steps to keep yourself on a solid emotional footing.

4.  Meet With a Lawyer

Whether you have been dismissed for cause or without cause, this is still important.

If your dismissal is for cause, this may be something that you can challenge.  You may be entitled to significant compensation, even though the employer has claimed that it has “just cause.”  The law in Canada is quite favourable to employees.  It is very difficult for employers to succeed with a just cause defence, particularly if the defence is based solely on poor performance.

If your dismissal is “without cause,” you may well be entitled to significantly more than the employer has offered.  Have a look at what is included in the severance package.  There may be items missing such as bonus, benefits, outplacement or the severance may simply be too low.

Most employment lawyers will charge a consultation fee for this type of review.  The fee is tax deductible and often employers will pay it.  This advice may be quite valuable.  After a proper review, if you are advised that everything is in order and the package is reasonable, this may be money well spent.  Some lawyers offering a “free consultation” will avoid providing detailed advice and will try to get you to commit to providing a large deposit without really providing a proper assessment of what you should expect.  With a proper legal consultation, you should leave the meeting with a good sense of the likely range of improvement in your package if you proceed, the anticipated legal fees and an understanding of relevant legal issues.  You should not commit to anything other than a reasonable initial consultation fee for a first meeting with a lawyer.

If you had a non-competition or non-solicitation agreement in place with your former employer, this is also something that should be reviewed with legal counsel so that you can understand your rights and obligations going forward.

5.  Outplacement and a Resume

If your severance package includes outplacement assistance, you should verify whether or not it is being provided unconditionally.  If so, you should get in touch with the outplacement provider early on in the process.  Don’t hesitate to ask questions.  Will the meetings be confidential?  Will the outplacement provider be reporting back to the employer?  Does the outplacement provider have experience in your field?  If you are not satisfied with the answers, you should consider asking the employer to permit you to use a provider of your choice.  If the outplacement assistance is only being provided conditional on a signed release, you should discuss the best strategy with your legal counsel.

6.  Employment Insurance

In most cases, you should contact HRDC to file for Employment Insurance as soon as possible.  Even if you have been dismissed for misconduct or other “just cause,” you may still be entitled to EI.  Sometimes you may have to go through an appeal process to ensure your entitlement.  If you are being provided with severance, you may not receive any EI payments until two weeks after all of the severance payments have been paid.  Nevertheless, you should still register early.

7.  Health, Dental and Insurance

Your severance package may continue benefits for some period of time.  You should make sure that you and/or your family members, if applicable, are up to date with dental care, health prescriptions, eye glasses, and other items that may be covered by your extended dental plan.  If your life and/or disability insurance coverage are going to be terminated, you should consider getting quotes as quickly as possible.  In some cases, you may have 30 days to convert over your life insurance policy from a group policy to an individual policy.  This may be important if your medical tests are problematic.

8.  Be Forward Looking

Being dismissed is never easy.  This will usually involve a significant life change as you will now have to shift careers.  But most people go through this transition successfully.   You will need to do your best to stay positive, consider the types of roles that you envision yourself in and put together a personal transition plan.  You should make sure that your resume is professional, free of any errors, and eye catching.  When attending job interviews, you should remain positive and avoid bad mouthing your previous employer or boss.  You should consider dealing with the that fact that you were dismissed upfront and summarily.  Honesty will almost always be the best policy even though that does not mean telling potential employers about all of your weaknesses.

9.  Keep Track of Efforts

It will be helpful and often legally required for you to track your job search efforts.  Put together a spread sheet listing all activities. This should include formal and informal contacts.  Include lunch meetings, phone calls and discussions with friends, colleagues and former co-workers.  Track dates, people contacted, positions applied for, interviews and outcomes.  Keep this file up to date.  It may be important in proving “mitigation” if your severance entitlement has not been resolved quickly.  Or it may be required for EI purposes.  It will also be a useful part of tracking your personal progress.

10.  Carefully Consider any New Contract

When you have been offered a new position, you may well be given an offer letter or employment contract.  Don’t assume that the contact is a standard form or that it is non-negotiable even though you may really want to take the position and move on.  The proposed employment contract may limit or reduce your legal rights significantly.  Make sure you understand all of its terms properly.  You might consider having it reviewed by an employment lawyer.

These are some of the key points to consider. Certainly there are many career transition books that are quite helpful.  People often recommend What Color is Your Parachute?  Another favourite, on a lighter note, is Dr. Suess’ “Oh The Places You’ll Go.”  

There are also numerous job search websites and resources of every kind available on the internet.  Brush up your linked in profile with details of your work, references and endorsements.  Try to remain positive.  For many people, a dismissal may well lead to opportunities or new situations that might even be better for you that the role you have just left.

 

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!

 

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