In March 2014 the Ontario Court of Appeal released a brief decision on an employee's obligations when they have been constructively dismissed by their employer.
In the case of Farwell v. Citair, Inc. (General Coach Canada), 2014 ONCA 177 it was established that an employee was constructively dismissed when his position was modified during a restructuring. The employee considered the change of position imposed on him, moving him from operations manager to purchasing manger, to be a fundamental breach of his contract and claimed 24 months of severance. At the Court of Appeal the employer argued that while they may have constructively dismissed the employee he should have remained at work during the 24 months for which he claimed severance. Previous court decisions have held that in certain situations an employee may be responsible to mitigate their damages in this way by continuing to work for an employer unless they are asked to leave or the workplace has become toxic. However, in the Citair case the Court of Appeal held that the employer could not expect that the employee remain at work during the 24 months for which he claimed severance without specifically offering this work opportunity to the employee - which it had not done.
The decision clarifies both the steps an employer must take if it wishes employees to remain at work following a constructive dismissal and the obligations of employees in the same situation. This fairly clear direction from the Court of Appeal should result in more certainty for both employers and employees when constructive dismissal has been alleged.
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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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.
Duty to accommodate – Where do employers draw the line?
Employers should do what they can to accommodate their employee’s disability, but there’s a line to be drawn between accommodation and frustration of the employment contract. If the contract is in fact “frustrated”, the employer can end the employment relationship without violating the Human Rights Code (Code). The question is whether the employer suffers undue hardship.
Section 11 of the Code allows the employer to show that a requirement, qualification or factor that results in discrimination is nevertheless reasonable and bona fide (legitimate). However, to do this, the employer must show that the needs of the person cannot be accommodated without undue hardship.
The duty to accommodate has both procedural and substantive obligations. The procedural component requires that the employer take steps to understand the employee’s disability-related needs and undertake an individualized investigation of potential accommodation measures to address those needs. The employer bears the onus of demonstrating what considerations, assessments and steps were undertaken to accommodate the employee to the point of undue hardship. The purpose of the duty to accommodate in an employment context is to ensure that an employee with a disability could continue to perform the essential duties of his or her employment if his or her needs can be accommodated without causing undue hardship to the employer.
The test for undue hardship is not total unfitness for work in the foreseeable future. If the characteristics of a disability are such that the proper operation of the business is hampered excessively or if an employee with such a disability remains unable to work for the reasonably foreseeable future even though the employer has tried to accommodate him or her, the employer will have satisfied the test. The duty to accommodate is compatible with general labour law rules, including both the rule that employers must respect employees' fundamental rights and the rule that employees must do their work. The employer's duty to accommodate ends where the employee is no longer able to fulfill the basic obligations associated with the employment relationship for the foreseeable future.
In Nason v. Thunder Bay Orthopaedic Inc. the employee was terminated while on unpaid medical leave. The trial judge awarded damages for wrongful dismissal. The Court of Appeal ruled that the employer’s decision to put the employee on an unpaid leave of absence was not an infringement of his rights, at that time, since the employer had already attempted to accommodate the employee. The employee could not fulfill the basic obligations of his position, despite the accommodations he received. However, the Court rejected the employer’s argument that the employment contract had been frustrated.
The onus to prove that the contract was frustrated was on the employer. The employer believed that the employee’s limitations were permanent. However, the employer did not seek medical information to sufficiently explore and conclude whether there was no reasonable likelihood that the employee could be returned to work with accommodations in the future.
The employer must assure that the tasks required of the employee are actually necessary to meet the employer’s goals. If the employee could continue his/her employment while avoiding such tasks and while still achieving the employer’s requested goal, there is no undue hardship. The test was set out by the Supreme Court of Canada. To establish a bona fide occupational requirement, the employer must prove that the requirement:
- was adopted for a purpose or goal that is rationally connected to the function being performed (such as a job, being a tenant, or participating in the service);
- was adopted in good faith, in the belief that it is necessary for the fulfilment of the purpose or goal; and
- is reasonably necessary to accomplish its purpose or goal, in the sense that it is impossible to accommodate the claimant without undue hardship.
What does this mean for Employers?
Employers should err on the side of caution and seek counsel prior to claiming frustration of the employment agreement. If it’s done prematurely, the employer could be subject to a wrongful termination claim, giving rise to common law reasonable notice or a claim for discrimination pursuant to the Code. Employers should also run an individual investigation into the employee’s limitations. It’s one thing to say that the employee cannot meet the demands of the job regardless of available accommodations. The employer must prove it by way of a proper and full investigation into the employee’s limitations. Prior to claiming frustration of the contract, the employer should consider the following:
- whether it investigated alternative approaches that do not have a discriminatory effect;
- reasons why viable alternatives, if any, can’t be put in place;
- whether it can meet the legitimate objectives in a less discriminatory way;
- whether the job requirement is properly designed to make sure the desired qualification is met without placing an undue burden on the people it applies to; and
- whether other parties who are obliged to assist in the search for accommodation have fulfilled their roles.
British Columbia (Public Service Employee Relations Commission) v. BCGSEU,  3 S.C.R. 3.
Ellis v. General Motors of Canada Ltd., 2011 HRTO 1453.
Nason v Thunder Bay Orthopaedic Inc, 2015 ONSC 8097,  OJ No 6892.
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