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.
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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I have a chronic medical condition which unfortunately has become worse over time. For the last two years I have been receiving benefits through my employer’s disability insurance plan. Recently, the insurer wrote to advise me that the terms of the policy have changed and that they now require additional medical information - why is this happening and am I at risk of losing my benefits?
Most disability insurance policies provided by employers have different coverage for different periods of time. For the first two years of an employee’s disability benefits are generally provided on the basis that you cannot perform the essential duties of your existing occupation. The definition of disability changes after two years in most policies.
One of the first steps in your case is to obtain a copy of the policy from your employer. This policy will usually include a brief description of the criteria that an employee must meet to be entitled to disability benefits. In the vast majority of cases after two years of paying benefits policies will limit an employee’s entitlement to further benefits unless the employee is unable to work in any occupation to which they are reasonably suited.
Because of this change to the disability definition, insurance companies will generally review files and seek additional medical information if someone has been receiving benefits for two years. However, Ontario courts have recognized that whether an individual is able to perform any occupation depends not only on their particular disability, but also their basic skill set and educational background. In many cases insurers won’t cut off benefits once they have completed their review and have received additional medical information. However, if you and your insurer disagree about whether you are capable of returning to the workforce it may be time to contact a Lawyer.
Work at my business has slowed down quite a bit this year. I currently have 11 employees but there is not enough work to go around. I should be getting a set of new contracts that will keep everyone busy this spring, but I’d like to make some temporary layoffs in the meantime to avoid having to let anyone go for good. I’ve discussed this with business colleagues who told me that temporary layoffs are not permitted for non-unionized employees. What are my options?
The law applicable to temporary layoffs in Ontario can be confusing. The Employment Standards Act does allow temporary layoffs of up to 13 weeks in a 20 week period. In certain seasonal industries, such as construction, temporary layoffs over the winter months are fairly common. However, in other workplaces courts in Ontario have treated temporary layoffs as constructive dismissals and have ordered employers to provide termination and severance pay.
In recent years, some Ontario court decisions have allowed temporary layoffs provided employers comply with both the Employment Standards Act and the terms of the employee’s contract. Depending on the nature of the work, such layoffs may even be permitted when an employee is working with an unwritten contract. A temporary layoff is also more likely to be permitted if an employee remains entitled to benefits and can access Employment Insurance during their time off. During any such layoff it is important to inform the employee that the layoff is temporary and to provide them with a return to work date. Finally, a temporary layoff should not be used as a form of discipline to punish an employee for misconduct – that will most certainly result in a claim for constructive dismissal.