Ontario Superior Court applies Waksdale Decision to Invalidate Termination Provision
In Sewell v. Provincial Fruit Co. Limited, 2020 ONSC 4406, the plaintiff brought a motion for summary judgment to determine the notice payable because of his termination.
The plaintiff had signed an employment contract which included the following termination clause:
- b) Termination by the Company for Just Cause
The Company is entitled to terminate your employment at any time and without any notice or any further compensation for just cause and the Company will not have any further obligations to you whether at contract, under statute, at common law or otherwise.
- c) Termination by the Company without Just Cause
(A) The Company will be entitled to terminate your employment at any time without just cause by providing you with the following:
. . .
(ii) a payment, or at the Company's sole option, notice or combination of notice and pay in lieu of such notice representing termination pay and, if applicable, severance pay, as may be required under the Employment Standards Act, 2000, as amended from time to time (the "Separation Period");
The motions judge found that the employment contract violated the minimum standards set out in the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (the “ESA”) and was therefore unenforceable. In doing so, Justice Mandhane applied the Court of Appeal’s decision in Waksdale v. Swegon North America Inc. The Court found that the “for cause” termination provision violated the ESA by contracting out of the requirement to provide notice except in cases where the employee engaged in willful misconduct.
This is a relevant decision given that in Waksdale, counsel had conceded that the “for cause” termination provision violated the ESA.
The Court also found that the termination clause combined notice and severance pay entitlements in violation of the ESA, noting that the clause in question was “substantially similar” to the one found unenforceable by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Wood v. Fred Deeley Imports Ltd.
For my part, I find the Court’s findings with respect to the combination of notice and severance pay entitlements confusing. In Wood, the clause read:
[The Company] is entitled to terminate your employment at any time without cause by providing you with 2 weeks' notice of termination or pay in lieu thereof for each completed or partial year of employment... The payments and notice provided for in this paragraph are inclusive of your entitlements to notice, pay in lieu of notice and severance pay.
On its face, the clause in Wood expressly combined notice and severance pay within the two 2 weeks’ notice. The clause in Sewelll appears to separate reasonable notice (or pay in lieu therefore) from severance pay, which is only payable “if applicable” and “as may be required under the ESA” (i.e. in a lump sum).
One thing is certain: Confusion continues to abound when it comes to the enforceability of termination provisions. Unfortunately, this uncertainty creates challenges for both employers and employees.
Frequently Asked Questions
I was fired without cause. My employer has given me an offer. Should I take it?
Answer: Employers aren’t handcuffed to their employees. If they act in accordance with their statutory and common law obligations, employers are free to part ways with employees without cause. Typically, the employer is obliged to provide statutory or common law reasonable notice or payment in lieu of notice. Costs, benefits, risks and reward of bringing legal action, should all be considered, prior to starting a claim.
Needlessly pursuing litigation could potentially prejudice the employee. You could delay the settlement and run the risk of losing a fair offer. You may find another job in the weeks following termination. If this happens, then the employer’s settlement may be subject to mitigation which means that they are credited the wages you obtain from that new job. You may also pay more in legal fees then the additional notice you should have received.
There are cases where employees are grossly underpaid when it comes to severance, so I do advocate that everyone who faces termination seek counsel to go over any severance offer. Do not sign it blindly. Speak to a Lawyer and make sure the offer is fair. Employers will often expect and, if prudent, will insist that their past employees reach out to counsel when deciding to sign a severance offer. You should do so as soon as possible after receiving the offer.
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Last month local newspapers reported the case of a McDonald’s employee in Kanata who was dismissed after receiving poor performance reviews. The employee received more than $100,000.00 in court. Why?
The short answer is that the judge in this case found that although the employee’s performance was not perfect the employer did not have “just cause” to terminate her employment contract. If a business chooses to dismiss an employee the employer has to first decide if they have just cause to end the contract or not. Just cause exists when an employee has committed a serious breach of contract such as theft or continually missing work without reason. If the employer does not have just cause then in most cases they have to provide compensation which can equal up to a month of salary for every year of the employee’s service.
Many employers have staff who they believe are poor performers. Performance reviews are often done to encourage better performance but may also be an attempt to build a case for a just cause dismissal. After several poor performance reviews an employer may choose to dismiss an employee for just cause. However, a decision to terminate an employee for just cause can be challenged in court where employers often find it difficult to prove that the alleged breach of contract was serious enough to warrant a just cause dismissal. Poor performance reviews may show that an employee was less than perfect but this alone is usually not enough to disentitle them to some compensation when they are dismissed. Because compensation is typically based on the number of years the employee has worked, the amount owing to dismissed employee can be significant which is what occurred in the case of the former McDonald’s employee.
Are employment contracts really necessary? Here are the Reasonable Notice and Bonus Requirements.
I’m always surprised to see how many employers still adopt the “handshake” method when hiring employees. I can understand the temptation to be nostalgic, but these types of employment agreements can leave employers at loss. Especially when the employment relationship ends. Here are some things every employer should consider:
Facts: The employee has worked for you for 7 years. You want to go a different way and he/she’s not part of the picture, so you let him/her go without cause. The law states you must provide either reasonable notice or pay in lieu of notice. How long will this notice be? It depends on whether you have a contract in place.
Contract: Employment contracts I draft or review for my clients will typically include termination provisions. The provisions set out what will happen when the employment is finished; amongst other things, the notice period that should be provided. Typically the provision will limit notice to the Employment Standards Act (ESA) minimum notice requirements. The ESA sets out the following parameters, depending on years of service:
Employer Notice Period
57 The notice of termination under section 54 shall be given,
(a) at least one week before the termination, if the employee’s period of employment is less than one year;
(b) at least two weeks before the termination, if the employee’s period of employment is one year or more and fewer than three years;
(c) at least three weeks before the termination, if the employee’s period of employment is three years or more and fewer than four years;
(d) at least four weeks before the termination, if the employee’s period of employment is four years or more and fewer than five years;
(e) at least five weeks before the termination, if the employee’s period of employment is five years or more and fewer than six years;
(f) at least six weeks before the termination, if the employee’s period of employment is six years or more and fewer than seven years;
(g) at least seven weeks before the termination, if the employee’s period of employment is seven years or more and fewer than eight years; or
(h) at least eight weeks before the termination, if the employee’s period of employment is eight years or more. 2000, c. 41, s. 57.
So, if drafted properly in the contract, the employee in the above example would have a right to 7 weeks notice.
If there is no contract in place, the employee is allowed “common law” reasonable notice. Bardal v. Globe & Mail Ltd set the precedent for all wrongful termination cases treating reasonable notice requirements. Although less than 8 pages long, the decision set out what factors should be considered when deciding how much notice an employee should get. It is typically a lot more then what an employee would get under the ESA minimums. Employment adjudicators have added to the Bardal factors and although not exhaustive, the typical considerations are as follows:
- the type or characterization of employment, for example, was it a contract position or permanent full-time position?
- the age of the employee at the time of the termination;
- the length of service that the employee provided to the employer;
- previous employment history and luring, if applicable;
- the experience and skill set of the employee at the time of the termination and whether this experience and skill set is transferable to reasonable alternative employment;
- the employee’s salary at the time of the termination;
- the current job market and the availability of reasonable alternative employment;
- whether the employee was in a position of management or upper management;
- does the employee have a health concern or disability that may impair securing alternative employment?
- the manner of the termination; and
- is this a single termination or a mass lay-off of 50+ employees?
Although not set in stone, adjudicators tend to adopt a month per year of service approach to notice. Cases will typically end up in that range and, depending on the factors above, there may be additional months added or reduced.
Taking the above example, that employee could expect something in the range of 7 months notice. The difference is significant. Let’s say the set income allowed the employee a weekly notice value of $1,000 (net). The ESA minimum would be $7,000. Common law notice would be in the range of $28,000.
As always, every case may be different. This is not an exact science and this example is a very simple version of what might occur. It does, however, stress the importance of having a contract in place that sets out the parties’ rights and obligations on termination.
Dealing again in termination, one provision that employers often miss is the right to bonus payment during the reasonable notice period. If a contract properly states that the bonus will not be paid for the period of reasonable notice, then the employee will not get paid a bonus after the termination date. If the contract doesn’t mention it, then the yearly bonus is deemed to apply throughout the entire notice period.
This applies to both discretionary and non-discretionary bonuses; that being said, there is some wiggle room on the discretionary bonus. For instance, in Fraser v. Canerector Inc., the employer successfully argued that the employee’s performance in the year pre-dating the termination did not merit the discretionary bonus.
Where the employee bonus is not discretionary, it must be expressly stated in the contract that the bonus will not be paid during the reasonable notice period. The concept was discussed in Paquette v. TeraGo Networks Inc. . In that case, the Court set out a two-part test for determining whether an employee is entitled to compensatory damages for the loss of a bonus:
- Was the bonus an integral part of the employee’s compensation package, thereby triggering a common law entitlement to damages in lieu of bonus?
- If so, is there any language in the bonus plan that would restrict the employee’s common law entitlement to damages in lieu of a bonus over the reasonable notice period?
It was recently applied in Singer v. Nordstrong Equipment Ltd.. In that case, the employee knew that the employer’s practice was not to pay out bonus entitlement during the reasonable notice period. Despite his knowledge of this fact, he was still awarded a quantified bonus. The Ontario Court of Appeal emphasised that the company did not limit the bonus payment in writing within the employees’ contract and that it needed to do so in order to refute any common law right that employee had to his bonus entitlement.
The Takeaway: Contracts are good for both employers and employees alike. They set out the parameters of the employment relationship and, if worded properly, can act as a strong dispute resolution tool. Clarity in the employment relationship is a crucial component of any healthy work environment. Drafting appropriate contracts to each employee is the best thing an employer can do to reduce overall costs and the potential for litigation.
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