SCC: Unjust Dismissal: Big Win for Employees

The Supreme Court of Canada has issued a landmark employment law decision.  The case of Wilson v. Atomic Energy of Canada focused on the definition of “unjust dismissal” under Part III of the Canada Labour Code.  In a nutshell, the Supreme Court has held that the vast majority of federally regulated employees can access the unjust dismissal provisions of the Code.  These employees can seek reinstatement or significant compensation on dismissal.

In other words, a Federally regulated employer, for example a bank or cable company, cannot simply dismiss an employee on a “without cause” basis and provide severance arrangements.  Dismissed employees in these circumstances can file unjust dismissal complaints and seek reinstatement.

The Wilson v. Atomic Energy decision considered the circumstances of a four and a half year employee with a clean disciplinary record.  The employee was dismissed on a “without cause” basis and provided with a severance package.  He challenged the decision and filed an unjust dismissal complaint.  Although successful at adjudication, the decision was overturned at the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal levels and worked its way up to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Writing for herself and five other Supreme Court justices, Abella J reviewed the history of the Canada Labour Code’s unjust dismissal provisions, which were enacted in 1978.  She concluded that the purpose of these enactments was to ensure that non-unionized Federally regulated employees would be entitled to protection from dismissal without cause.  Federally regulated employees, she concluded, enjoy “fundamental protection from arbitrary dismissal” even with pay.

Although there are certain exceptions including situations involving the “discontinuance of a function” or a “lack of work,” this Supreme Court decision makes it abundantly clear that employers in the Federally regulated sector cannot simply terminate the employment of most employees.

This decision could greatly increase the number of unjust dismissal complaints in Federally regulated workplaces.  For example, any non-managerial employee, with one year or more of service, working for a Canadian bank can seek reinstatement if the employee is dismissed on a “without cause” basis, even if a severance package is provided.  This would, of course, invalidate the minimum type severance provisions that some Canadian banks have tried to use in their employment contracts with employees.

Employees who have been dismissed by a Federally regulated employer must file the unjust dismissal complaint within 90 days of the dismissal.  If not, it appears from the decision that the employee loses the right to this statutory framework and is left with common law remedies alone.

Three of the Supreme Court justices endorsed a vigorous dissent in which they would have held that the Canada Labour Code is, essentially, procedural and does not override Canadian common law.  The minority interpretation would have gutted the Code of any real meaning for Federal employees.

The dissenting justices correctly highlighted the fact that a Federally regulated employee can lose his or her protection if the employee misses the 90 day timeline.  Perhaps a future court decision will enable employees to use the civil courts, if necessary, to enforce the unjust dismissal provisions if the deadline has been missed.  However, for now, dismissed employees and their counsel should ensure that they file an unjust dismissal complaint within the 90 day time period.

It is interesting that the Supreme Court, in both the minority and majority reasons, chose to comment on the common law standards of dismissal by way of obiter.  The court noted that, at common law, employers can dismiss employees “for whatever reason they want so long as they give reasonable notice or pay in lieu of notice.”  This suggests that, for the time being, the court is not about to add in a “good faith” obligation as a requirement for dismissing a non-federally regulated employee.

This decision reinforces the wide gap between employees in the Federal sector and employees in most other provincial jurisdictions.  An employee dismissed on a without cause basis in Ontario can file a wrongful dismissal complaint and sue for dismissal damages in the court system.  In some cases, the employee may also have a valid claim for other damages or remedies.  But reinstatement is not an option, nor is the court required to consider why the employee was dismissed, if the dismissal was on a “without cause” basis.

But in the federal sector, it is now clear that the vast majority of dismissed employees enjoy “union-like” protection.  They can file unjust dismissal complaints and seek reinstatement or significantly increased damages.  Non-managerial employees with more than one year of service who have been dismissed from Canadian banks, telephone and cable companies, radio stations and other industries have significant negotiating leverage and may demand reinstatement or negotiate significantly higher severance packages.

Damages under the Canada Labour Code can be exponentially higher since employees can be awarded reinstatement and compensated for the time that they were out work.  Overall, this is an extremely helpful decision for federally regulated employees.

 

 

 

 

 

Key Employment Law Cases of 2014

Another year has passed and that means it is time to reflect back and consider some developments in employment law that we witnessed in 2014.  It was not an earth shattering year in the employment law field in Canada.  There were certainly many decisions reached across the country dealing with wrongful dismissal, breach of human rights, non-competition covenants and a range of other topics.  But the number of decisions that really changed the law was limited.  That being said, I have highlighted a few cases and other employment law developments that are worth summarizing.  I have provided the links to my original blog articles where they are cases that I wrote about.

1.  Ghomeshi and the CBC

This case is not completely over since there is a still a potential labour arbitration pending.  Moreover, the case was not adjudicated.  It was settled.  However, it created a great deal of discussion in the employment law world and for that reason it is worth including.  What are the key points to think about?

A.  Unionized employees will have an incredibly difficult time launching wrongful dismissal or other employment law related cases in the court system.  The proper venue for these cases is labour arbitration hearings.  For the most part, dismissed unionized employees must file a grievance.

B.  Egregious personal conduct, even off-hours conduct, can be cause for dismissal, particularly if at least some of it spills over into the workplace or into workplace related events.  Employers will need to pay careful attention to allegations of improper personal conduct and should address and deal with these matters before they become unmanageable.

C.  Taking an extremely aggressive approach to employment law litigation is simply not always the best strategy for plaintiffs.

There may still be more on this in 2015 as Canadians follow Ghomeshi’s criminal proceedings and his labour arbitration case.  The high profile nature of the dispute warrants its inclusion on a list of interesting developments.

2.  Boucher v. Wal-mart

The Ontario Court of Appeal awarded more than $400,000 to an employee who had been subjected to humiliating treatment in the workplace.  It is still rare in Canada to see these types of awards.  Although the amount of the trial judgment was reduced considerably, this case is still a significant weapon in the arsenal of decisions upon which abused employees and their counsel will rely.  It remains to be seen whether large scale punitive and aggravated damages become more commonplace in Canada.  Employees facing humiliating workplace conduct and bullying bosses have additional legal options to consider in light of this decision.

3.  AG Canada v. Johnstone

In this key case, the Federal Court of Appeal looked at the issue of “family status” under human rights legislation and concluded that family status includes childcare responsibilities and similar family care obligations.  This means that an employee with childcare responsibilities may, in certain circumstances, be entitled to protection and accommodation under applicable human rights legislation.  The Court set out a number of criteria that must be met and tried to make it clear that not every employee with some child care responsibilities will be able to request accommodation.  However, many employers are trying to deal with the issues pro-actively and are finding ways to accommodate the needs of employees with child care and elderly care responsibilities.

4.  Jan Wong and the Globe and Mail

Although I originally discussed this in 2013, the adjudicator’s decision was upheld in 2014 and Jan Wong was left facing a significant award as well as an award of legal costs.  The case illustrates a few points:

A.  The difficulty of proceeding in any kind of dispute in a unionized workplace without the backing and support of the union;

B.  The seriousness of confidentiality provisions in a settlement.  Employees who sign confidentiality provisions in settlements with their former employers can expect to face repercussions if they breach these provisions.  In some cases, a breach can mean a requirement to pay back to the employer the full amount of the original settlement.

5.  Fulawka v. Bank of Nova Scotia (Originally 2012 Ontario CA)

The Bank of Nova Scotia reached a settlement of a class action lawsuit with a group of bank employees claiming entitlement to overtime pay.  This settlement means that as many as 16,000 employees of the Bank of Nova Scotia could be entitled to overtime pay for overtime hours worked during the time period 2000 to 2013.  The affected employees were required to submit their claims by October 2014.  The case is a significant illustration of the availability of class actions to deal with widespread policies of large employers that may affect many different employees.  It is also which has caused employers and employees to examine their overtime hours and overtime policies.  Just because an employee is paid a salary does not mean that the employee can be required to work uncompensated overtime hours.

 

2014 Blog Posts – Selected Highlights

As well as they the key cases and issues set out above, I have highlighted a few of my blog posts from the past year.  In case you missed any of these, you might find them interesting:

1.  Hollander v. Tiger Courier Inc. (Sask C.A.)

It was not considered wrongful dismissal where a package of marijuana was delivered to an employee at his workplace.    The employee claimed that he knew nothing about the pot and that it wasn’t his…Fascinating reading.

2.  Rhebergen v. Creston Veterinary Clinic (B.C.C.A.)

The B.C. Court of Appeal upheld a very onerous non-compete provision for a veterinarian.  The clause prohibited a vet from setting up a practice within 25 miles of her employer’s clinic, for a period of 3 years.  It included huge financial penalties that would become payable in the event of a breach.  Surprisingly, the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld this clause.

3.  Steps to Take When You Are Fired

In this blog post, I have set out some things to consider when facing a dismissal situation.

4.  Are Employment Contracts Negotiable?

This post deals with aspects of employment contracts that can and should be negotiated.

5.  Poisoned Work Environment?  Not in this Restaurant.

Discussion of a recent Ontario Human Rights Tribunal decision addressing allegations of a poisoned work environment.

 

For 2015, I will aim to put up one or two new posts a month and I hope to send out an email update quarterly, or so.

 

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

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