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.