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.