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.
Frequently Asked Questions
I was fired without cause. What happened to my company shares or stock options?
Your job was just terminated "without cause" and as if it's not bad enough that you just lost your job, you also find out that your shares in the company are no longer yours. Just like they never existed, any unvested shares are forfeited the day you're terminated. For some, this could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in expected income gone.
So what does "vesting" mean and why is it important in this context? An unvested share simply means that the shareholder's rights to that share is subject to specific conditions. Companies will typically create vesting schedules for the shares they give their employees. The shares are provided to the employee subject to a share agreement which sets out the vesting schedule. That schedule will tell the employee when his/her shares will vest. Once the shares vests, the employee has an absolute right to these shares. They can be sold or kept at the discretion of the employee.
Vesting schedules are extremely useful and can be justified. The logic behind a vesting schedule holds that employees must earn shares that are available to them. The longevity of their employment should be correlated to their performance. If they perform well, their job will remain secure and their shares will vest with time. The vesting schedule dangles the possibility of added income in front of the employee to motivate good performance.
Employers should have the right to motivate their employees in this manner and an underserving employee should not be rewarded with income that was subject to him or her deserving it. Any employee who has justified a termination for cause, should not benefit from the vesting of unvested shares.
The dispute arises when the employee's performance is not at issue. The employee worked hard for the company and did nothing to jeopardise his or her rights to the unvested shares. We know that the employee can still be terminated without cause since no employer is handcuffed to their employees. The dilemma is whether or not that employee should have some right to his or her unvested shares.
Companies can squash any right the employee might have to unvested shares by contracting accordingly. Provisions in the share agreements or long term incentive plans, if they are sufficiently clear, can restrict the rights of the employee to unvested shares no matter if the employee is terminated for cause or without cause. Think of the following scenario:
Your employment is going extremely well. You've just received a promotion and your performance reviews are great. You're then terminated without cause. You're terminated in August. Before being terminated, you held 500 unvested shares in the company valued at $400.00 a share. Based on your vesting schedule, 50% of those shares were to vest in October that same year.
The shareholder's agreement holds that all unvested shares once terminated, notwithstanding cause, would be forfeited immediately. Remember you did nothing to merit your termination. Notwithstanding, your company has terminated you. Had they kept you for another two months, you would have had access to $100,000 worth of shares on top of your current income.
This does happen and, with the rise in e-commerce and proficiency in which new companies make public offerings, courts are now seeing a rise in cases where these types of employee shareholder agreements are in dispute.
The Ontario Court of Appeal (ONCA) has recently addressed a similar scenario in O'Reilly v. IMAX Corporation, 2019 ONCA 991. O'Reilly brought a wrongful termination claim alleging that he was not provided sufficient notice and that his unvested shares were unlawfully forfeited. On a summary judgement motion, O'Reilly was awarded 24 months' reasonable notice. The main issue before the ONCA was whether or not the motions judge was correct in awarding damages for shares that would have vested during the notice period.
The ONCA looked closely at the relevant provisions within the employer's long-term incentive plan and stock option grants. The following provision was highlighted:
(5) Termination of Employment Generally. In the event that the Participant’s employment with the Company terminates for any reason other than death, Disability or for Cause, the Options shall cease to vest, any unvested Options shall immediately be cancelled and revert back to the Company for no consideration and the Participant shall have no further right or interest therein. Any vested Options shall continue to be exercisable for a period of thirty (30) days following the date of such termination; … To the extent that any vested Options are not exercised within such period following termination of employment, such Options shall be cancelled and revert back to the Company for no consideration and the Participant shall have no further right or interest therein.
The Court set out to determine whether the words "terminates for any reason" included termination without cause. The ONCA emphasized the need for clarity in these types of provisions. It agreed with the motion judge "that the reference to terminates for any reason in the plans could not be presumed to refer to termination without cause."
O'Reilly was awarded the entirety of his shares throughout his notice period, valued at what they would have been had he sold them immediately upon vesting. O'Reilly had upwards of 30,000 shares valued between $20-$30 that would have vested during the 24 months' notice. The motion judge's decision on the unvested shares and the ONCA's subsequent dismissal made a difference of upwards of half a million dollars in the overall damages awarded to O'Reilly.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR EMPLOYEES AND EMPLOYERS?
FOR EMPLOYEES: Do not walk away from your unvested shares without consulting an employment Lawyer. You could be leaving significant entitlements on the table.
FOR EMPLOYERS: Any attempt to limit the common law entitlements of an employee should be clear and unequivocal. Do not assume that general language, meant to encompass all, is sufficient to address one specific scenario. It is best to identify the entitlement within the provision and address it accordingly. Contracts must be drafted with specific consideration to the employer, their employees and the market. Boilerplate contracts leave unintended openings to employees and may significantly hamper the economic status of a company when it attempts to restructure and terminate employees.
O'Reilly v. IMAX Corporation, 2019 ONCA 991.
O’Reilly v. Imax Corporation, 2019 ONSC 342.
Veer v. Dover Corporation (Canada), 1999 CanLII 3008 (ON CA)
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My employer has again asked that I work in a foreign country. I am concerned that this posting is unsafe. Last time I worked abroad multiple bombings took place and several governments closed their embassies. I also had my personal belongings stolen while I was in what was supposed to be a secure area. Do I have to go work in this country? If I do is my employer required to provide travel insurance in case something goes wrong?
The first thing to look at is your employment contract. Most employment contracts contain both written terms, and unwritten terms that are implied into the contract by law. The written portion of an employment contract usually mentions the benefits and insurance coverage that an employer is required to provide and it may also mention work locations and travel.
Unless travel insurance is covered in the original contract, or has since been agreed to by the employer, an employer generally cannot be forced to provide travel insurance. Also, most travel insurance policies will not cover all of the risks you’ve outlined. However, the failure to mention travel or relocation in a contract may prevent an employer from requiring that an employee work in a foreign country. Whether an employer can make such a request, without it being specifically mentioned in the contract, depends primarily on the nature of the work and if foreign travel to that country was expected or foreseeable when the employee was hired or promoted into their current position.
If an employee has a legitimate fear for their safety they may be able to argue that a travel request from their employer is not consistent with their contract. The context of the employment and the country involved are important considerations. For example it could be implied into many contracts that travel to the United States is acceptable, whereas travel to parts of Afghanistan is not. It is always best to review your contract, check your facts, and consult with a Lawyer before making any demands of your employer.
I was injured in a car accident while driving to drop off a package for my employer—I almost never drive as part of my job. I work in an office as a clerk. The other driver was charged. Now I am off work and need physiotherapy. My doctor says I may have a permanent injury to my back. I have received a Notice from the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB) requesting that I elect whether or not I want to receive benefits.
Can I sue the other driver and receive benefits?
No. In Ontario injured workers who receive WSIB benefits forego their right to sue on their own behalf. You may choose to elect not to receive benefits and preserve your right to sue a third party in some limited circumstances. In Ontario, employees who are insured under the Workplace Safety Insurance Act scheme are not permitted to sue their own employer for injuries sustained while working. Depending on the nature of your job, you may not be able to sue another worker or employer either.
However, if you are injured in a vehicle collision and the responsible driver is not a worker as defined in the Act then you may elect whether or not you wish to receive WSIB benefits or pursue the at fault driver. That is a complicated decision.
Generally speaking, the more serious the injuries you have sustained the more likely you will be better off foregoing WSIB benefits and pursuing the at fault driver. However, if there are questions about liability (if you are wholly or partially at fault), or if there is a question about your ability to successfully recover damages in a tort action the WSIB scheme may be the best option for you.
Deciding whether or not to elect to receive WSIB benefits is complicated, and best made with the assistance of a Lawyer with experience in such matters. Experienced Lawyers are available to consult with you, often without obligation to you.