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.

 

After-Acquired Cause – Employee Fired For Drug Transactions

What is “after-acquired cause?”  It is a legal doctrine that allows employers to prove just cause – even after they have fired employees on a “without cause” basis.

In other words – the employer decides to fire an employee “without cause” and offers to pay some severance.  The employee challenges the severance amount and goes after the employer for more compensation.  The employer then digs through the employee’s old expense accounts, cell phone transactions, computer files etc., looking for some evidence of wrongdoing.  If the employer finds evidence and it can prove serious wrongdoing, the employer can take the position that the employee had been dismissed for just cause – even if it did not allege this at the time the employee was first fired (because it didn’t know about the misconduct).  This is known as after-acquired cause.

This is exactly what happened in the recent B.C. Court of Appeal decision in Van den Boogaard v. Vancouver Pile Driving Ltd. (2014) BCCA 168.

The plaintiff was working as a project manager.  He was responsible for the safety of the job site in a high risk, heavily regulated industry.  He was also responsible for enforcing the company’s drug policy.  His employment was terminated after he had worked for the company for just over a year.

Initially, the plaintiff was let go without cause and paid four weeks’ pay.  He sued for wrongful dismissal.  After the plaintiff challenged the dismissal, the defendant employer went through the company cell phone that the plaintiff had returned.  It found a series of text messages, sent during work hours, in which the plaintiff was soliciting and procuring drugs from one of the employees he supervised.  The main drugs were Dexedrine and Clonazepam, though others were also mentioned.  All of the drugs were illegal or restricted substances.  The defendant concluded that it had just cause for letting the plaintiff go and relied on the legal doctrine of after-acquired cause.

I have to admit that I am sometimes amazed at the types of cases that make it to trial.  Given the plaintiff’s position, the activities in question, the fact that the conduct was all admitted or proven, the fact that it involved the plaintiff’s subordinate and numerous other factors, this would seem like a no-brainer, that is a virtually unwinnable case.

Yet the plaintiff took the case to trial, using a summary trial procedure in B.C.  Not surprisingly, he lost at trial.  The trial court judge held that the plaintiff’s conduct was seriously incompatible with his duties as a project manager.  The court held that there was just cause, even though it was after-acquired cause.  The court dismissed the case and ordered the plaintiff to pay legal costs to the defendant.

The plaintiff then appealed to the B.C. Court of Appeal.  The CA also had little difficulty upholding the trial court decision unanimously.  The Court concluded that the plaintiff had been involved in “criminal conduct with a person over whom he had supervisory authority…”  This misconduct went to the root of the employment relationship and warranted a dismissal for cause.

This case is a clear example of after-acquired cause.  It can be devastating for an employee, particularly one who was dismissed at first on a “without cause” basis and perhaps even offered severance.

Lessons for Employees and Employers

There are important lessons from this type of decision for both employees and employers.

For employees, this case reinforces the point that lawsuits are always risky.  Employees who challenge a severance package run the risk that employers will go through their expense accounts, computer files, cell phone records and other items with a fine tooth comb.  For most employees, this will not create any major problems.  But for employees who have a reason to be concerned, there is a possibility that a diligent employer will discover the misconduct and rely on it to deny any further severance, using the after acquired cause argument.   Employees should make sure to canvass any such concerns carefully with their legal counsel before deciding whether or not to challenge a severance package.

For employers, this case illustrates the fact that employers can investigate an employee’s conduct carefully, even after the employee has been dismissed on a without cause basis.  If the case has not yet been settled and the employer finds something significant, it can be used to save a substantial amount of money.  The employer must prove that it did not know about the misconduct at the time it dismissed the employee and that the misconduct is serious enough to warrant a cause dismissal.

For employees and employers, this case demonstrates the costs and risks of litigation.  While dismissed employees will often want their day in court, the aggressive pursuit of an ill considered lawsuit can be quite costly for an unemployed plaintiff.

 

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.

 

Severance Packages and “Clawback” Provisions

In wrongful dismissal situations, many employers provide dismissed employees with severance packages that consist of a salary continuation.  Of course employees would usually prefer to be paid a lump sum, but usually, they are just not entitled to a lump sum under Canadian law.  Dismissed employees are entitled to be paid the minimum amounts under the Ontario Employment Standards Act, 2000, which include termination and severance.  The rest of the damages that they are owed are paid “in lieu of” reasonable notice.  This means that dismissed employees are only entitled to the payments, strictly speaking, if they have not found other work.  If they do find work and they have not yet settled with their former employers, the employers are entitled to credit for any amounts earned by the former employee during the notice period.

Most employers (and employees) do not want to wait and see how long it might take to find other work.  They want things resolved and out of the way.  So employers will often provide a salary continuance arrangement that provides some incentive for the employee to look for work and find a new position.  Usually, it is 50% of the remaining severance amount that they might have been paid. This is considered a reasonable provision and many employers will refuse to delete these clauses.  Nevertheless, most employees view these incentive payments as a “clawback” on the amounts that they are “owed” and become very upset with these provisions.  Some employers simply are very insistent on including these provisions as part of any severance arrangement.

Nevertheless and with that in mind – here are a few things you can consider when faced with a salary continuance proposal:

1.  The Length of the Notice/Severance Period:  Just because an employer has chosen some arbitrary number as the number of weeks or months that it will provide as a notice and/or severance period, that number may not be written in stone.  It may be quite flexible.  Sometimes employers will low-ball employees, hoping that they do not take any further steps.  Employees are often more likely to get the notice period increased than to get the “clawback” removed.  Many employers will increase proposed severance packages after receiving a letter from legal counsel.

2. Definition of Mitigation:  Some employers will state that the 50% payout will be triggered if the employee finds any work – even part time, consulting or temporary.  Empoyers are often willing to negotiate changes to these clauses so that the 50% will only come into effect if the employee has found a reasonably comparable employment or self-employment opportunity.

3.  What’s Included?:  Sometimes employers will offer a salary continuation on the basis of base salary alone.  Employees are entitled to be provided with benefits continuation, pension contributions, bonuses and other amounts that they would have earned if they had continued to be employed – even the severance arrangement is a salary continuation package.

4.  Other Items:  Employees should be able to get some other items included in their severance packages – like outplacement assistance through a decent agency and reasonable legal fees to have a package reviewed.  As well, some employers will provide a helpful reference letter though they cannot really be forced to do so.

The items listed above are items that employers will often consider changing, adjusting or adding.

It is fair to point out that, despite anything I have said above, some employers will be open to removing the salary continuation provision and paying out a lump sum.  They will usually want some concession in exchange – for example a lower overall amount or the agreement not to pay some of the “extra items” listed above.  But it is often  worth trying.

Other employers will not budge on anything and will tell employees to take the package or bring a lawsuit.  Employees then have to make a decision as to whether it is worthwhile to start a legal claim.  This can be a difficult decision, especially since neither the employer, the dismissed employee or the lawyer know how long it might take the employee to find new employment.

Nevertheless, in situations where employers have provided low-ball offers and are not willing to budge initially, dismissed employees will often come out ahead by proceeding with a Statement of Claim (i.e. filing a lawsuit in court).

 

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