A recent decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal, involving a deficient notice clause, illustrates the perils of attempting self-representation in a wrongful dismissal case. In the case of Musoni v. Logitek Technology Ltd., the case appears to have been decided without some of the key arguments relating to the validity of employment contracts even being raised.
The plaintiff worked as a customer support agent from October 2005 to March 6, 2008, a total of about 2 1/2 years. Six months after the plaintiff began his employment, he signed an employment agreement. The agreement included a clause which provided for fifteen days’ notice in the event of dismissal.
The plantiff was dismissed and was provided with two weeks’ severance. He did not accept this amount and sued for $70,000 in wrongful dismissal damages.
At trial, the plaintiff noted that he had not obtained legal advice at the time he signed the contract. However, he apparently agreed at trial that the agreement was “valid and in force.” (This is really a legal conclusion rather than a factual matter). Instead of arguing that he was owed more notice – and that the employment agreement was not valid, the plaintiff alleged the defendant had dismissed him for improper reasons, relating to his record of offences.
The trial judge concluded that since the plaintiff was dismissed on a “without cause” basis, he was only entitled to the minimum amount provided for in the employment agreement. The reason for his dismissal was held to be irrelevant. The lawsuit was dismissed and the plaintiff was ordered to pay the defendant’s costs in the sum of $5,012.
The plaintiff appealed to the Court of Appeal and represented himself once again. The Court of Appeal upheld the employment contract and dismissed the case, ordering the plaintiff to pay another $3,500.
The striking aspect of this case is the arguments that do not appear to have been put before the trial judge or the Court of Appeal or considered by one of the two levels of court.
Firstly, the employment agreement that the defendant relied upon was provided to the plaintiff six months after he commenced employment. There is no suggestion in the trial decision that any new consideration was provided to the plaintiff. Based on a number of cases that have previously been decided by the Ontario Court of Appeal, the employment agreement should have been thrown out for lack of consideration (See for example Hobbs v. TDI Canada Ltd.) Interestingly, one of the Court of Appeal judges who sat on the panel that decided Hobbs v. TDI Canada Ltd., Justice MacPherson, was on the panel in this case of Musoni v. Logitek Technology Ltd. Yet there is no mention of any consideration argument.
Secondly, even if the employment agreement had been provided to the plaintiff in exchange for some new consideration, it contained a clause that provided for only 15 days notice. If the plaintiff had been working for the defendant for three years, this 15 days would have been less than the minimum notice required under the Ontario Employment Standards Act, 2000 (21 days rather than 15). At four years, it would have been significantly less, no matter what type of calculation is used. These types of clauses that will eventually amount to less than the minimum amount required by statutory provision have been held to be void by Canadian courts. (See, for example Shore v. Ladner Downs, a decision of the B.C. Court of Appeal).
It seems likely that if this case had been argued properly, the plaintiff should have been entitled to between 3 and 6 months’ notice, based on his annual income of $47,000. Instead, he wound up with 15 days’ notice and a bill for the defendant’s costs of more than $8,500. The case is an illustration of a situation in which the courts will not come up with the proper arguments for the unrepresented plaintiff. So the plaintiff is ultimately left with a brutal result and only himself to sue for professional negligence – for not having raised some key legal arguments that any competent employment lawyer would have put forward.
A final note: Given that the case was probably only worth three or four months’ compensation, the proper place for this case would have been Ontario Small Claims Court, which has a monetary limit of $25,000, rather than the Ontario Superior Court. Ouch!