A nasty complaint letter written to an employer can be just cause for dismissal, according to a recent ruling of the Ontario Court of Appeal. Of course, it may take almost 9 years to get that final decision from the Ontario Court system.
The Ontario Court of Appeal released its decision on August 17, 2012 in the case of Bennett v. Cunningham, as the third (and maybe final) of a series of progressively higher Court judgments in this crazy dispute between two family lawyers. In doing so, the Court of Appeal upheld a Superior Court decision from 2006 in which Ms Bennett’s wrongful dismissal law suit had been dismissed. After such a long, protracted dispute over a relatively small amount, it appears that the lawyers for both sides are the big winners.
The plaintiff, Dawn Bennett, was a junior family lawyer with limited experience. She began working with the defendant, Karen Cunningham, as an associate lawyer in a small law firm in Mississauga in the summer of 2002. The arrangement was a commission based arrangement where Ms Bennett would be paid a percentage of amounts that were billed and collected. Ms Bennett would work regular hours, in an office provided by Ms Cunningham and would have minimal expenses to look after even though she would be treated as an independent contractor.
Shortly after joining the firm, Ms Bennett had a number of complaints about the way the office was run. According to the Trial Court Judge, some of these issues were addressed. However, Ms Bennett was not actually getting paid for fees that she was docketing and billing, which was causing her financial difficulties and she became quite concerned about this.
Ms Bennett decided to write a four page letter which she handed to Ms Cunningham on December 21, 2002, just as Ms Cunningham was leaving for a vacation. She also sent a copy by registered mail, even though she knew that Ms Cunningham would be away. The letter included a litany of complaints, including a suggestion that Ms Cunningham was “dishonest and negligent” in her docketing practices.
Ms Cunningham returned from vacation and fired Ms Bennett for “just cause.” Ms Bennett sued for wrongful dismissal.
The parties could not resolve the dispute and conducted a six day trial. They fought over whether or not Ms Bennett was an employee or an independent contractor. The Trial Court had little difficulty concluding that the relationship was an employment relationship, or at least an “intermediate” relationship and that Ms Bennett would be entitled to reasonable notice if she was dismissed without cause.
They also fought over unpaid commissions owing, although Ms Cunningham eventually conceded that she owed Ms Bennett about $18,000 in billings that had not yet been paid to Ms Bennett.
Neither of these findings was disturbed by the higher Courts.
But the major issue in dispute was wrongful dismissal. The Trial Court judge held that the relationship had been irreparably damaged by Ms Bennett’s “insolence” and that there was just cause for dismissal. On appeal, the Ontario Divisional Court, in 2011, overturned that ruling and held that Ms Bennett’s conduct did not amount to just cause. On further appeal, in the decision released in August 2012, the Ontario Court of Appeal restored the original Trial Court ruling. It held that the decision of the Trial Court judge was mainly a finding of fact and that the judge was best situated to make that decision. It held that the Trial Court judge had reviewed the evidence fully and was entitled to draw the conclusion that Ms Bennett’s conduct was sufficiently inappropriate to warrant a “just cause” finding.
It is noteworthy that even if Ms Bennett had won, she would have only been awarded about $17,000 in wrongful dismissal damages because she had found new employment within a few months. This is what makes it even more bizarre that the parties spent so much time, energy and money fighting over this case.
So after 9 years of this heated dispute, Ms Bennett wound up with an award for about $18,000 in billings owing to her (plus interest on that amount) and some of her legal costs paid for the trial. On the other hand, she lost her wrongful dismissal case and wound up owing legal costs to Ms Cunningham for the Appeal. She also wound up with a harsh public decision about her conduct as an Associate lawyer.
The case is really an example of how parties can become involved in a legal dispute in which legal fees amount to far more than the value of what either side can achieve.
More importantly, the case is a very serious warning message to employees who are thinking of writing complaint letters to their employers. Employees should be very careful not to use incendiary, harsh or accusatory language, especially if they cannot support the allegations they are making. Employees should be particularly careful not to accuse their employers of “dishonesty,” “negligence” or other forms of inappropriate conduct unless they can really back up these accusations. Even then, this type of letter should only be a last resort after other ways of addressing problems have been exhausted.
Perhaps, most importantly, employees should run this type of complaint letter by a lawyer first before sending out an ill conceived letter that could very well result in a just cause dismissal.