Is theft just cause for termination of employment in Canada? It might be. But employers looking to support a just cause case with allegations of theft must be able to prove that they have built a very solid, airtight case. Otherwise, the dismissed employee may well succeed with a wrongful dismissal claim and win substantial damages.
The recent case of Dennis v. Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (2014) ONSC 3882 demonstrates just how high the bar may be for Ontario employers.
The plaintiff, Brenda Dennis, was a security manager for the defendant, the OLG. She had worked for the OLG for more than 13 years in a senior position, supervising some 55 employees.
Ms Dennis was dismissed on what was, initially, a without cause basis. She was offered a severance package of just under one year’s pay. She signed off on the package and waited for her settlement funds.
However, it came to light that Ms Dennis had been in charge of arranging Wonderland tickets for OLG employees, for the social committee. This was not an official part of her job duties. However, in performing this role, Ms Dennis apparently “borrowed” more than $1,000 from the social committee’s Wonderland ticket proceeds. She needed the money to pay debt she had incurred after becoming the victim of a Nigerian scam. She gave evidence that she had always intended to repay the money.
Before paying out Ms Dennis’ severance, OLG discovered that there was a shortfall of more than $1,000 from this Wonderland ticket arrangement. It questioned Ms Dennis and decided to withhold the agreed upon severance pending a further investigation.
Ms Dennis was charged criminally with theft but the charges were ultimately dropped. However, OLG continued to maintain that Ms Dennis had stolen the money and that this would constitute just cause. It refused to pay out the agreed upon settlement. Ms Dennis sued and argued that there was no evidence of theft as she had always intended to repay the money. She sued for an order that OLG should be required to honour the settlement arrangements.
OLG took the position that this was “after acquired cause” and that it should not have to pay out the funds since it had discovered the “theft.”
After reviewing various just cause decisions, the court came to the conclusion that termination with “just cause” would be “totally disproportionate.”
Justice O’Marra relied on a number of points:
1. Running the social committee’s Wonderland ticket program was something that was “voluntarily assumed” by the plaintiff was not “an essential condition of her employment contract with the OLG;”
2. Ms Dennis might not have believed or understood that “borrowing” the money would be criminal;
3. The victim was Canada’s Wonderland rather than Ms Dennis’ employer;
4. The employer concluded that Ms Dennis had admitted to theft but she had only admitted to borrowing the money;
5. The internal investigation was “inadequate and inaccurate;” and
6. The employer had agree to pay the settlement funds and Ms Dennis had signed a release that OLG had prepared.
The court therefore concluded that OLG could not maintain just cause and that it was required to pay out the agreed upon severance amounts plus legal fees.
The end result is one that seems very charitable for Ms Dennis, the dismissed employee, using the analysis the court proposed. Obviously, this was a compassionate judge who considered the human elements of the case, the impact on Ms Dennis of being denied severance after 13 years and the circumstances in which Ms Dennis had been the victim of a Nigerian scam. There is certainly case law support for taking into account these types of considerations.
However, stepping back for a moment, the facts seem to show that Ms Dennis’ actions were quite serious. She removed and used more than $1,000 from a social committee fund that did not belong to her and only repaid the money after being caught. For many judges, this may well have met or exceeded the high standard required for an employer to prove just cause, particularly for an employee in a position of trust in a high level security role.
It remains to be seen whether this decision will be appealed and how the Ontario Court of Appeal would approach the case.
The court may well have come to the same result by focusing on the deal that the employee had reached with the employer. Since Ms Dennis had already signed off on a signed release that the employer had prepared and had already agreed to a deal, it would probably have been fair for the court to say that it was too late for the employer to start making allegations of just cause after the deal was concluded. Instead, the court delved into issues of just cause and theft.
If the decision is upheld, particularly the court’s analysis of the theft allegations, it will demonstrate quite clearly that wrongful dismissal law in Canada is heavily skewed in favour of employees. While more often than not that is a good thing, this type of decision will leave some employers wondering whether the just cause bar can ever be reached.
Perhaps the real message that should have been taken from this case is that neither side can reopen a severance deal once the deal has been negotiated and the release has been signed unless there is clear evidence of misrepresentation by one side or the other, which was clearly not an issue in this case.