The Ontario Court of Appeal has released several wrongful dismissal decisions over the past few months. It has also released some employment law cases that are not specifically wrongful dismissal. This is a first of a group of blogs to review those cases and provide some commentary. There is no clear pattern to the decisions. In some cases, the Ontario Court of Appeal has been very sympathetic to employees and to employee rights. In other cases, the Court has shown a willingness to side squarely with employers, particularly when dealing with certain contractual clauses. Ultimately, these cases seem to be dependent on the particular facts – as well as the particular panel of judges hearing the appeal.
Brake v. PJ-M2R Restaurant Inc. (2017) ONCA 402, is one of those wrongful dismissal cases in which the Court has sided with the dismissed employee completely.
Esther Brake was a McDonald’s restaurant manager for more than 25 years. She had been working with a specific franchise owner for more than 20 years. For most of her career, she had been given excellent performance reviews.
After years of receiving excellent reviews, she was given her first negative review in late 2011. She was then transferred to a poor-performing location, one of the worst locations of all the McDonald’s in Canada. Ostensibly, this was done to enable her to improve her performance. After three months at the new location, she was called into a meeting and told that she was being put on a 90 day performance review program due to her poor performance. The program included goals that were found to be “arbitrary and unfair” and very difficult to meet. At the end of the 90 day program, in mid-2012, the employer gave Ms Brake a choice between accepting a demotion and being fired, claiming that she had “failed” the program. Ms Brake refused the demotion. She brought a lawsuit for constructive dismissal. She was successful at trial. The trial judge held that this was a wrongful dismissal and awarded Ms Brake 20 months’ pay plus legal costs.
The trial judge had ruled that Ms Brake had not been given a sufficient and reasonable opportunity to correct issues that the employer may have had with her performance. She was “set up to fail.” The decision to demote her was “substantial and fundamental” and was a constructive dismissal.
The employer appealed on several grounds, all of which were dismissed.
The Court of Appeal came to the following conclusions, some of which will be quite helpful to other dismissed employees.
Having dismissed all of the grounds of appeal, the Court of Appeal awarded costs in the sum of $19,500 for the appeal, which would be in addition to the costs awarded at trial.
For the most part, these points are not particularly new. Much of this decision is a review by the Court of Appeal of the trial judge’s factual findings and the trial judge’s application of wrongful dismissal and constructive dismissal law to those factual findings.
However, the case does illustrate that the Court of Appeal can be very sympathetic to employees in specific cases. In this case, Justices Gillese, Feldman and Pepall were wholly supportive of the decision of the trial judge and have provided a decision that fully vindicates the rights of the dismissed employee.
As I will note in my other blog posts, some other employees who have come before the Ontario Court of Appeal recently have had measurably less success. Of course the panels have been different. Aside from the specific factual details of the particular case, it is quite clear that the specific judges who form part of any particular Court of Appeal panel will also have a major effect on the outcome of almost any employment law case.