Both employers and employees regularly ask us questions concerning the nature of the obligations which exist for employers in preventing workplace harassment and violence.
In December 2009, the Government of Ontario passed amendments to the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (the “OHSA”) to address these concerns. The amendments to the OHSA impose positive obligations on employers, including that:
- Employers are required to develop written policies with respect to workplace harassment and workplace violence. These policies must be in writing and posted in a conspicuous place, and reviewed at least annually;
- Employers are required to develop and maintain a program to implement the policy with respect to workplace violence and workplace harassment;
- Employers are required to assess the risks of violence that may arise from the nature of the workplace, the type of work or the conditions of work;
- If the employer becomes aware or ought reasonably to be aware that domestic violence that would likely expose a work to physical injury may occur in the workplace, the employer shall take every precaution reasonable to protect the worker.
As an employer, you will want to ensure that adequate mechanisms exist to meet your obligations. Alternatively, as an employee, it is important that you know what steps your workplace is obligated to take to meet the legislative requirements.
If you require assistance putting together a sound employer policy, or if you would like to find out whether your employer is meeting its obligations, please feel free to contact us at (613) 270-8600 ext. 223.
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.
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.
Need an Employment Lawyer? Reach out today. You may be eligible for a no-obligation consultation.
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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