The largest wrongful dismissal award in Canadian history was recently awarded by a jury in Prince George, British Columbia in the case of Higginson v. Babine Forest Products Ltd. The case was reported by the Prince George Citizen newspaper on July 27, 2012. The Plaintiff, Larry Higginson, had been employed by Babine Forest Products for 34 years and at the time of his dismissal worked as a manager in the electrical department of Babine's sawmill. At trial the jury awarded $809,000.00, the majority of this award was in punitive damages.
Punitive damages are not typically awarded in wrongful dismissal cases but in Higginson's case he alleged that the company management had deliberately attempted to create an unpleasant work environment at the sawmill in the hope that he would decide to leave on his own. When he didn't quit the company created false grounds to dismiss him for cause in order to avoid paying severance. In its decision the jury appeared to accept most, if not all, of Higginson's arguments in awarding approximately $236,000 in wrongful dismissal damages and $573,000 in punitive damages.
Following the trial, the company appealed the jury's decision but the parties settled the matter before the case reached the B.C. Court of Appeal. The company's appeal would likely have focused on the substantial punitive damages award. The Supreme Court of Canada has said that punitive damages should only be awarded when normal compensatory damages do not achieve the purposes of punishment, deterrence, and denunciation required by the circumstances of the case.
The case of Honda v. Keays decided by the Supreme Court in 2008 has been interpreted as restricting the availability of punitive damages in employment law cases.
In follow up interviews regarding the case the Lawyers for Higginson noted that prior to his dismissal the company asked Higginson to sign a document relinquishing his rights to severance and excluded him from meetings that he was normally required to attend as part of his duties. Because Higginson asked for a trial with a jury, there is no detailed decision from the trial judge explaining the precise reasons for the substantial judgement. However, the size of the total award should provide caution to any employer trying to use pressure tactics to get an employee to quit in order to avoid their severance obligations.
I was just let go "without cause". What does this mean?
Prior to engaging in any litigious action, clients should have a grasp of not only their rights but those of the employer as well. What may not appear fair, maybe either contractually or legally legitimate. The term "without cause" is seen in most termination letters. There's a very clear reason for this.
The threshold for cause is high and, if the employer is unsuccessful in meeting that threshold, they then risk being subject to damages for wrongful termination inclusive of not only proper notice, but aggravated and punitive damages as well.
A prime example of this risk coming to fruition is seen in Ruston v. Keddco MFG. (2011) Ltd., 2019 ONCA 125. Ruston, former president of Keddco, was fired for cause. Keddco alleged that Ruston committed fraud. When Ruston indicated that he would be retaining legal counsel, Keddco advised him that, if he hired a Lawyer, it would counter-claim against him. They warned that the costs of litigation would be extreme to both parties.
Ruston ignored the threat and filed a claim against Keddco. Keddco followed-up on their promise and brought a counterclaim for $1.7 million. The lower court found that the allegations of fraud could not be proven. It was held that Ruston was wrongfully dismissed. He was awarded 19 months termination pay, in addition to $100,000 in punitive damages and $25,000 in moral damages. The costs award was $546,684. The total award, including payment in lieu of notice, was just below $1 million. The Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed the employer's appeal and withheld the lower courts ruling on these matters. Keddco's total losses would have far exceeded $1 million with their legal costs included.
Had Keddco simply terminated the employment without cause and relied on a properly drafted termination provision, Ruston's damages could have topped out at the Employment Standards Act entitlements. Without a contract, common law notice would have been subject to the soft cap of 24 months and early settlement would have been possible. Without the allegation of fraud and the subsequent counterclaim, Keddco's worst-case scenario would have likely been much better than the current end result.
This is an example of why employers are often advised to dismiss without cause, asserting the employer's right to do so and relying on properly drafted contract provisions to navigate the employees' entitlements upon termination.
So what does this mean for employees? Firstly, do not assume that your performance can no longer be factored into an award for termination pay. The employer can always argue "near cause" which has reduced awards in past decisions. Understand, however, that the most prevalent dispute in a without cause dismissal is the employee's entitlement, by contract and by law.
Employees who are terminated without cause, need to acknowledge that the employer has the right to do so. Nonetheless, they must do so while preserving your entitlements. Those entitlements should not be assessed by yourself or your employer. All aspects governing the employment relationship should be forwarded to a competent employment Lawyer. The employment Lawyer will indicate your entitlements and provide an honest opinion on the viability of disputing the package that was offered.
What does this mean for Employees and Employers?
Employees: Once terminated without cause, do not sign a full and final release without having a Lawyer review the employment relationship and confirm your actual entitlements.
Employers: Asserting cause is a risky position to take. Cost-benefit might weigh in favour of dismissing the employee "without cause." The allegation of cause cannot be retracted. Counsel should be sought prior to alleging cause.
Ruston v. Keddco MFG. (2011) Ltd., 2019 ONCA 125 (CanLII)
Ruston v. Keddco Mfg. (2011) Ltd., 2018 ONSC 2919 (CanLII)
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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.
I recently changed roles at work. My new title is “Accounts Manager” and I am responsible for all the company’s accounts payable and receivable. I also help other staff price our products and develop new accounts. I am very happy about my new role but my job used to be “9 to 5” and now I have to work late and on weekends. I asked my boss about overtime but was informed that managers and supervisors do not receive overtime pay. Is this true?
For most employees in Ontario overtime hours start after 44 hours of work in a week. For every hour worked in excess of 44 hours an employee is supposed to receive time and a half.
Under the Employment Standards Act there are exceptions to the general rule including that managers and supervisors do not receive any overtime compensation. For this “manager exception” to apply, an employee generally needs to be performing work that involves the supervision of other employees in a leadership role as opposed working in general administrative duties. Also, the exempt employee must be working in the manager role the majority of the time while at work - not just every now and then. The fact that someone’s job title includes the word “manager” or “supervisor” does not determine their entitlement to overtime pay. Rather, it depends on what the actual duties of the employee are.
Although many job titles, such Accounts Manager, include the word “manager” this does not necessarily mean you don’t get overtime pay. If your job does not involve supervising other employees this is a good indication that you may be entitled to overtime compensation. For more information you can seek legal counsel or examine the Ministry of Labour’s website at http://www.labour.gov.on.ca/.