Less Money for Dismissal in Tough Economic Times?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constructively Dismissed Employee Not Required to Return to Work

Is a constructively dismissed employee required to return to work to “mitigate damages?”  This issue has attracted a great deal of judicial attention across Canada.  Since the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Evans v. Teamsters Local Union No. 31, courts across the country have held that employees can be required to return to work after being dismissed, if asked to do so by their former employers, as a way of mitigating damages.  If they refuse to do so, they risk losing all of their wrongful dismissal damages.

In a recent Ontario decision, the Court of Appeal weighed in on this issue with a decision that is quite helpful for constructively dismissed employees – finally.  In Farwell v. Citair Inc., a decision released on March 7, 2014, the Court of Appeal upheld a trial court decision that the plaintiff was not required to return to work after being constructively dismissed in order to mitigate his damages.

The plaintiff, Ken Farwell, had worked for the defendant for 38 years.  He was 58 years of age and was working as the Vice President of Operations.  The defendant restructured and transferred the plaintiff to the role of Purchasing Manager.  The plaintiff took the position that he had been constructively dismissed.  He resigned and brought a lawsuit.

The trial court judge held that the plaintiff had been constructively dismissed.    The new position would have involved a significant demotion and loss of prestige and status.  Monetarily, it would have left the plaintiff with a lower bonus even though other component of his compensation would have remained the same.  Overall, the demotion from VP Operations to Purchasing Manager was held to have been a constructive dismissal.

The defendant argued that the plaintiff failed to mitigate his damages by refusing to work out the notice period in the new position after having been constructively dismissed.  The trial court judge rejected this argument.  Morissette J. held that an employee is not required to work in “an atmosphere of hostility, embarrassment or humiliation.”  The court considered factors including “work atmosphere, stigma and loss of dignity.”  It concluded that it would have been objectively humiliating for the plaintiff to have returned to work.

On appeal, the defendant challenged several rulings of the trial court judge.

The Ontario Court of Appeal had little difficulty in concluding that the plaintiff had been constructively dismissed when he was demoted.  It also upheld the 24 month notice period quite summarily.

The real issue for the Court of Appeal was whether the plaintiff should have been required to return to work to mitigate his damages after having been constructively dismissed.  If the Court of Appeal had agreed with the defendant, it would have become virtually impossible to bring a constructive dismissal lawsuit successfully.

The Court of Appeal begins its discussion with a favourable interpretation of the Evans decision as one which promotes the efficient breach of contract.  The Court of Appeal lauds the effects of this decision, in general.

However, the Court then declines to overturn the trial court ruling on mitigation.  It grudgingly accepts that the plaintiff was not required to work in a lesser role after having been constructively dismissed since the trial court judge had held that this would have been “objectively humiliating.”

The crux of the matter, however, according to the Court of Appeal, is that the plaintiff was not asked to return and work out the notice period after having been constructively dismissed.  If the employer had asked him to return to the same position he had held, for the balance of the notice period, he would have been required to do so.  Here, the Court of Appeal held that there was no evidence of an appropriate return to work offer, after the plaintiff had been constructively dismissed.

This is quite a helpful case for constructively dismissed employees after a string of stinging defeats in courts across Canada. The decision suggests that if there is a constructive dismissal of the type that involves a significant demotion, the employee will not be required to mitigate damages by working out the notice period in the lesser role.  This contrasts with cases like Evans where the employee is asked to return to work in the same position – after being dismissed – actually or constructively.

The Farwell decision means that constructive dismissal lawsuits are still alive in Ontario.  If there is a provable case of demotion, loss of status, loss of prestige and perhaps, embarassment, the employee will not be required to return to work.  That being said, this may not be the last word on this line of cases.  Stay tuned and tread carefully.

 

 

 

Wins Wrongful Dismissal: But Fails to Mitigate

In another blow to dismissed employees. a B.C. court has reduced the wrongful dismissal damages that would have been owing to an employee after the employee failed to return to work when “recalled.”  This follows a number of decisions across Canada including cases in Ontario, B.C. and even at the Supreme Court.  It has become quite clear that if an employee refuses to return to work when asked to return, even after being wrongfully dismissed, it may be very risky for the employee to refuse.

In the case of Hooge v. Gillwood Remanufacturing Inc., the plaintiff was a 36 year employee, working as a production supervisor at the time of dismissal.  He was put on a “lay off” by his employer without any advance notice or pay.  The defendant company claimed that it had the right to “lay off” the employee under the B.C. Employment Standards Act.  The plaintiff alleged that he had been dismissed and sued for wrongful dismissal.  One week after he filed his lawsuit, the employer purported to “recall” him back to work.

At trial, the B.C. Supreme Court held that the employee had in fact been constructively dismissed. The plaintiff had not had a written employment contract in place.  When he was put on a lay off, he was told that it was “indefinite” and that there were no plans to recall him.  He was given an ROE that said “shortage of work.”  The B.C. court agreed with the plaintiff that there was no term of his employment that would have permitted a “lay off” without pay after all of these years of employment.  He was, in fact, constructively dismissed and was entitled to eighteen months’ compensation.

However, the Court proceeded to look at the issue of mitigation.  “The law is clear that in certain circumstances an employee who declines an offer of re-employment from the same employer after having been dismissed, whether actually or constructively, may be found to failed to mitigate his damages, and have any award reduced on account of such failure to mitigate.”  As long as it would have been “reasonable” in all of the circumstances for the plaintiff to return to work, he or she may be obligated to do so.  The court discussed Evans. v. Teamsters Local Union No. 31  as well as other B.C. cases including Davies v. Fraser Collection Services Ltd. 2008 B.C.S.C. 942 and Besse v. Dr. A.S. Machner Inc. 2009 BCSC 1216.

Ultimately, the court concluded that the evidence did not establish acrimony, mistreatment, belittling, embarrassing actions or undermining of authority in the workplace.  The court concluded that the plaintiff should have returned to the same position, on the same terms and conditions, at the same rate of pay.  Here is the court’s reasoning:

“It seems to me that an employer who has laid-off an employee, or wrongfully terminated an employee without due notice, may very well come to the conclusion, particularly with the benefit of legal advice that its actions constituted a wrongful dismissal and may seek to mitigate its own exposure to the payment of damages by offering to re-hire the employee.”

Here, the court held that the plaintiff should have returned to work.

Fortunately, in this case, all was not lost for the plaintiff.  The defendant locked out its unionized employees and ceased operations approximately seven months after purporting to recall the plaintiff.  The court held that the plaintiff would not have been paid during the lock-out, so he would not have been able to mitigate his damages during that time period.  Nevertheless, he was docked 7 1/2 months’ pay for the time period during which he would have been able to work if he had returned to work when recalled.

This case, from a B.C. perspective, reinforces the interpretation of Evans that has become the law across Canada.  Employees who are fired, laid-off or otherwise dismissed – and then offered a return to work – even after they file a lawsuit, must be very careful in deciding how to answer the employer’s offer.  Refusing to return to work and then continuing a lawsuit can be very costly.

There is something to be said for the notion that employers might have made a mistake and should be entitled to reverse a decision and have an employee come back to work.  After all, in the unionized context, an employee can be reinstated.

However, more often than not, this type of case will simply be used by a range of employers looking to play games.  Employers can try to “lay off” employees without offering anything.  Then, if the employee sues, they can “recall” the employee.  This gives employers a way to try firing someone while minimizing the risk of owing any severance.  It seems to open up the door to all kinds of abuses by the types of employers that might choose to act unethically.  Certainly, there are situations in which employers may have a good faith “change of heart” or are otherwise justified in changing their minds and reversing a decision to dismiss an employee.

But that does not necessarily seem to be the case in many of the situations I see.  This line of case law creates uncertainty, economic and emotional stress for employees, and also makes it difficult to settle some cases reasonably, both from an employee and employer perspective.  Nevertheless, employees who ignore these decisions may be making a very costly mistake.

 

 

Former Manager Awarded $100,000 in Constructive Dismissal Suit

Constructive dismissal lawsuits can be very challenging.  Many judges seem to feel that employees should continue to work for their empl0yers even if significant employment terms have been changed.  Nevertheless, where an employee is faced with a significant reduction in compensation or a clear demotion, a constructive dismissal suit may be appropriate and successful.

In a recent Ontario Superior Court decision, Jodoin v. Nissan Canada Inc. a former employee of Nissan Canada was awarded more than $100,000 in wrongful dismissal damages as a result of a successful claim for constructive dismissal.

Harry Jodoin had been working for Nissan for more than 10 years.  Just before his demotion, he was a Senior Manager in charge of retail sales and sponsorships.  He controlled a budget of more than $30 Million.

In December 2010, Mr. Jodoin was told that he was being moved into the role of Senior Manager of Vehicle Preparation Programme.  There was no job description for this position.  No employees would report to Mr. Jodoin.  There was no private office, no budget and no long term goals in place.  In fact, Mr. Jodoin was initially moved from an office into a cubicle in a high traffic area with little privacy.

The court accepted all of this evidence and concluded that Mr. Jodoin had been constructively dismissed by Nissan.  In coming to this conclusion, the court held that since Mr. Jodoin had been demoted, he was not required to continue to remain in the position (as a way of “mitigating his damages.”).  The court noted that Mr. Jodoin continued to work for about a month and a half before taking the position that he had been constructively dismissed.  However, the court concluded that this was a reasonable time period.

The court awarded Mr. Jodoin damages for the full time that he was out of work, which in this case amounted to approximately 9 months.  The damages included compensation for base salary, benefits, the company vehicle, the incentive plan and the RRSP plan.  This all added up to more than $100,000 plus interest and legal costs.

This case demonstrates that constructive dismissal law suits are still alive and well in Ontario.  However, an employee bringing this type of claim will need to demonstrate an objectively clear demotion or a significant reduction in pay.  Job changes that do not amount to a demotion may not be sufficient.  Fortunately for Mr. Jodoin, he was able to convince the court that a reasonable, objective person would agree that he had been demoted.  Many employees who allege constructive dismissal are not as fortunate.

Bringing this type of lawsuit in the wrong circumstances can be a very costly mistake.  It can be come even less worthwhile if the dismissed employee is able to find new employment quickly.  Nevertheless, employees who are out of work for some significant time period may find it quite worthwhile to proceed with this type of claim.

 

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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