Use of Summary Judgment Motions in Dismissal Cases

What are summary judgment motions?  Are they effective in wrongful dismissal cases?  A recent decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal in Arnone v. Best Theratronics Ltd. has provided some helpful guidance for those who would like to use this process.

A summary judgment is a motion for judgment that bypasses the need for a trial.  It can be used where there is no “genuine issue” that requires a trial.  It can often allow parties to save time and legal costs and has been used quite often in Ontario more recently in non-cause wrongful dismissal cases.

The case involved a 53 year old employee who was dismissed without cause after 31 years.  After the parties could not come to a mutually agreeable severance arrangement, the employee sued for wrongful dismissal.  Rather than proceed to a trial, he brought a summary judgment motion in the Ontario Superior Court.  Although this process allows parties to bypass some of the more expensive procedures in other litigation cases, including extensive examinations for discovery, motions and a trial, it can still be a costly process.  Here there were cross examinations on affidavits filed in preparation for the summary judgment.

The motions judge hearing the case initially made a number of findings and awards that were challenged on appeal to the Court of Appeal.  For purposes of this note, I wanted to highlight some key findings of the Court of Appeal, which are relevant and helpful to future litigants.

1.  Summary Judgment is a Great Process for Without Cause Wrongful Dismissal Cases

The Court of Appeal had little trouble concluding that there were no “genuine issues requiring a trial.”  It noted that “a straight-forward claim for wrongful dismissal without cause, such as the present one, strikes me as the type of case usually amenable to a Rule 20 summary judgment motion.”  The defendant tried to resist the motion by arguing that it was unclear whether the plaintiff was a customer service specialist or a manager.  The defendant argued that this issue required a trial.  The Court of Appeal held that there was no issue requiring a trial.  It also noted that, in any event, “character of employment” is a “factor of declining importance.”  In other words, the factors that are far more important to consider include a dismissed employee’s age and length of service rather than the actual position that the person held.

2. Reasonable Notice

The motions judge awarded the plaintiff a notice period of 16.8 months since that was the amount of time that the plaintiff needed to bridge his pension.  The Court held that this was an incorrect approach.  However, the Court increased the notice period to 22 months, upholding the alternate finding that the motions judge had made.  The defendant argued at the Court of Appeal that the notice period should have been 14.4 weeks.  This position was roundly rejected and the Court of Appeal held that 22 months was “within the acceptable range of notice periods for employees in circumstances similar to the plaintiff.”

3.  What About Mitigation?

The Court of Appeal confirmed that any money earned by a dismissed employee during the applicable notice period is to be deducted from the amount that the employer is ordered to pay for the applicable notice period.  There is little new here as this is a statement of well settled law.   If the plaintiff starts earning a higher income during the applicable notice period, this decision suggests that the plaintiff could actually lose money by having a longer notice period.  However, the notice period in this case ensured a full pension for the plaintiff.

4.  Pension Benefits

Dismissed employees are entitled to the “present value of the loss of pension benefits during the notice period.”  This calculations should be performed by an actuary.  In this case, the assessment of $65,000 as the pension loss by an expert actuary was not challenged.

There were two other issues in this case that are less commonly contested.  The plaintiff was awarded a “retiring allowance of 30 weeks’ pay” based on a company policy that provided a retiring allowance of one week’s pay per year to retiring employees.  The court held that the “retiring allowance” policy did not clearly exempt dismissed employees from receiving the retiring allowance.  This allowance was payable in addition to the other wrongful dismissal damages.

It is also worth noting that the motions court made a cost award of $52,280 on this summary judgment motion.  The cost award was challenged by the plaintiff, who had apparently made an official “Offer to Settle” before the motion that was not seen by the motions court judge after the issue of liability was determined.  The plaintiff wanted to argue that he would be entitled to costs on a higher scale as a result of having submitted valid offers to settle before the motion.  Moreover, there would still be further costs to be awarded as a result of this appeal.  The Court of Appeal agreed that the issue of costs should be reexamined in light of the offers.

The end result is that this was certainly not an inexpensive summary judgment motion.  While it is true that the parties avoided many days of trial, there were still affidavits, cross examinations and submissions.  Nevertheless, the process seems to have worked out quite well for the plaintiff, on paper at least, who was ultimately awarded 22 months’ pay less any amounts earned during that period, a retiring allowance equal to 30 weeks’ pay, pension damages of $65,000 and a significant costs award.

Plaintiffs who have been dismissed without cause and provided with a low ball offer may be well advised to consider a summary judgment motion as the best way to advance a wrongful dismissal claim through the legal process.

 

 

Fixed Term Employment Contract? Better Prove It!

When is a fixed term employment contract not enforceable?  A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court in Tossonian v. Cynphany Diamonds Inc. addressed this issue.  The court held that the fixed term guarantee was not part of the original deal between the parties and threw out that part of the contract.  The plaintiff was still awarded wrongful dismissal damages but they were much lower than they would have been if the employment contract had been enforceable.

The plaintiff, Razmig Tossanian, moved from Vancouver, B.C. to accept a position at Cynphany Diamonds in Toronto.  According the trial decision, the plaintiff was looking for an opportunity to move his family to Toronto.  After lengthy negotiations, he accepted an email offer of employment that purported to be based on an oral agreement.  The email set out the various terms that had been agreed upon, but made no mention of a five year fixed term.  The plaintiff did not respond in writing, though he indicated that he had called the owner of Cynphany to confirm the five year guarantee.

The plaintiff moved from Vancouver to Toronto without anything further in writing.  He began working for the defendant in late August 2011.

Some weeks later, the parties signed an “Employment Contract.”  This document did not reference the five year term.  A further document, for mortgage purposes was prepared, and signed by the defendant.  The second document stated that the plaintiff had a “guaranteed five year position.”

There was yet another document that also referenced a five year period, which was also prepared for mortgage confirmation purposes.  When the bank called to confirm, the owner of the defendant confirmed the five year term.

Mr. Tossanian worked for a total of approximately 8 months for the defendant.  At some point, according to the evidence, the plaintiff began having discussions with another potential employer and he shared information with these discussions with at least one co-worker.  He apparently suggested to his co-worker that he had a guaranteed job if he was fired by Cynphany Diamonds.  The owner of the defendant found out about these discussions and became quite upset.  There was a factual dispute about whether or not the plaintiff resigned or was fired but the evidence seems to be fairly clear in this regard that he was fired.  He was not fired for just cause as it is not cause to fire an employee for looking for other work.  Just cause was not argued at trial.

After being dismissed, the plaintiff went to the potential employer but the job opportunity that he had been pursuing fizzled.  Ultimately, he wound up returning to Vancouver and going back to his old position after just more than 4 months.  This position was at a much lower rate of pay.

The plaintiff sued for wrongful dismissal.  He alleged that he had a five year fixed term employment agreement and that it had been breached.  Even though he found work after four months, he claimed that his losses over a period of five years would amount to approximately $175,000.

The court does not seem to have been impressed by the plaintiff or his evidence.  Despite the various written agreements, the court held that the initial email between the parties was the key document and it did not reference a five year term.  Although the employer made “inflated representations about the duration of Mr. Tossanian’s employment contract to help him get a mortgage” the five year term had not formed part of the initial employment contract.  The court held that there was no new consideration for the five year guarantee.  The decision notes that the presiding judge did not feel that a salesperson of fine jewellery would require a five year fixed term employment contract.

Even though the court refused to find that there had been a five year guarantee, it still found that the plaintiff had been wrongfully dismissed. The court then had to turn to the applicable notice period.  The judge was not particularly sympathetic to Mr. Tossonian.  He was awarded a total notice period of two months, amounting to just over $13,500.  This was awarded after a trial that spanned over seven days, not to mention all of the preliminary motions, examinations and other court appearances.  Ouch!

In some respects, the decision is puzzling.  The plaintiff had at least two documents, signed by the defendant, providing for a guaranteed five year period.  Although the owner of the defendant provided evidence that things were not really as they seemed, the court’s explanation of why the five year fixed term employment agreement should not be enforceable is not particularly convincing.  If the defendant signed a document guaranteeing a five year period, provided that document to third parties and answered oral inquiries in a manner consistent with that document, there seems to be ample reason to find that the document was binding.

The court’s decision was likely coloured by the plaintiff and by the court’s assessment of the plaintiff as a witness.  The judge did not seem to like the plaintiff’s explanation as to why the five year fixed term was not included in the original email.  The court was less than impressed by the plaintiff’s efforts to find work for another employer, while still employed by the defendant.  In particular, the court found that the plaintiff had discussed that with at least one other employee and this caused the judge to empathize with the employer. As well, the court noted that the plaintiff returned to his old position reasonably quickly after being dismissed and may have had other opportunities as well.

The judge’s assessment of the plaintiff and that plaintiff’s character was quite damaging.  Not only did the court reject the five year term but it also awarded the plaintiff a very short notice period of only two months.  Courts have a great deal of latitude in selecting the appropriate notice period.  Although judges are supposed to consider the length of service, age, type of position and a variety of factors, decisions are inevitably coloured by the likeability of the plaintiff as a witness.

It may well be that this case is headed for an appeal to the Ontario Court of Appeal for a reassessment.  While the two month notice period is probably not likely to change if the Court of Appeal upholds the court’s findings, the real issue is whether or not the employer was bound by a five year employment contract.  This seems to be a question of law and one which the Court of Appeal may well consider carefully and could even reverse, depending on the particular Court of Appeal panel.

The decision is a reminder of some very key points that apply to many employment law situations:

1.  An enforceable contract must contain all of the terms and must be agreed upon by both sides, in advance, prior to the start date.  Oral representations, side agreements and “confirmation of employment letters” may not be binding if they conflict with the original contract;

2.  Where an employee finds work after being dismissed, courts will be reluctant to award large scale damages unless there is a very compelling reason to do so;

3.  Whether or not a witness makes a favourable impression on the court is crucial.  If a court has concerns about a witness’s honesty, character, motivation or if a court has other concerns, that may well have disastrous consequences for that side.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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