An employee who leaves to work for a company’s competitor may be sued if their employer believes they’ve broken the written or unwritten terms of their employment contract. It is true that an employee’s obligations to their employer last beyond the last day of work, but that does not necessarily mean that you’ll get sued.
The ongoing written obligations of employees often relate to non-competition or non-solicitation clauses in contracts. These are essentially sections of the contract that are designed protect employers from having their departing employees take their customers or compete against them. Although many contracts include these types of clauses Ontario Courts won’t always enforce them if they are too strict.
An employee’s unwritten obligations are often more important than the written ones. At a minimum these unwritten rules require that a departing employee must return all property to their employer and keep anything that can’t be returned confidential. For a software company this means that beyond returning a company laptop you must ensure you don’t disclose trade secrets or customer lists to your new employer.
Returning all of your employer’s property and respecting their confidentiality is most important. If you’re worried about what’s written in your contract, a Lawyer should be able to review your contract and provide you with advice at a reasonable cost.
I have been off work since May 2016 and have been trying to obtain short-term disability insurance since then. My doctor has provided me with three sick notes since then and at our last appointment she told me not to work. However, my application for short-term disability insurance has been denied. I’ve given the disability insurer the notes from my doctor and I’ve gone through the appeal process but have been denied again. My employer is now asking when I will return and I’ve booked an appointment with my doctor to see what she thinks. What should I do?
It is not uncommon for disability insurers to deny an initial application for short-term disability benefits. Often the reason cited for the denial is a lack of medical evidence of a disability. If the only documentation you have provided to the insurer are sick notes from your doctor it is usually of assistance to obtain further medical records from your doctor including something documenting your diagnosis. Often, after receiving such additional documentation an insurer will approve an application for disability benefits. If you continue to be denied benefits, it is likely time to consult with legal counsel. Also short-term disability benefits typically end within 6 months even if you are approved. Ensure you know when these benefits end and decide with your doctor whether you should be applying for long-term disability benefits if they are available to you.
With respect to returning to work you are entitled to rely on your doctor’s advice. If your doctor tells you not to work this should be documented in a doctor’s note and provided to your employer. Forcing you to return to work when your doctor says you’re sick is in breach of human rights legislation and it’s unlikely that your employer will insist on your return to work in the face of your doctor’s advice.
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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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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