Can a Non-Payment of a Bonus Trigger Constructive Dismissal?

| Friday, February 24th, 2017 | No Comments »

In the case of bonus pay, would a disagreement over the entitlement, and subsequently a non-payment, be enough for an employee to claim constructive dismissal? When an employer changes an essential term of an employment contract without the consent of the employee, this is a unilateral change and would warrant a constructive dismissal claim. This means that the employee had no reasonable alternative but to walk away from the job. This requires a fundamental change to the terms of employment such as pay and responsibilities. The remedy sought would be damages in the form of ‘notice pay’.

This, of course, is circumstantial. Important factors include the amount of the bonus in question. If the bonus makes up a large proportion of the employee’s pay and is guaranteed, then a failure of payment would more likely result in a successful constructive dismissal claim. Alternatively, if the bonus was a small amount with no other alteration to the employment contract, a constructive dismissal claim will unlikely be successful. A 2016 Ontario Superior Court case of Chapman vs GPM Investment Management (the company) deals with exactly this.

In this case, Chapman was the CEO and President of GPM. Chapman felt he was entitled to a bonus of 10% of profits made off the sale of an asset (property) for which GMP was involved. GPM disagreed over this 10% bonus because they claimed the gains made did not fall under the definition of ‘profit’ as defined in the employment contract. Chapman quit and claimed constructive dismissal in addition to payment for the 10% bonus he felt was owed. The Ontario Superior Court found that Chapman was entitled to this bonus, however, the failure to make this payment was not enough to trigger constructive dismissal.

The reasons the court did not find this to be constructive dismissal was due to a few reasons: the bonus was not much compared to Chapman’s overall compensation, the terms of the employment contract (the bonus structure) were not altered, and the employer intended to continue  honouring the employment contract in the future. The disagreement was also over a particular type of asset that the employer was never going to deal with again, thus making this a one-time isolated event. Overall, the circumstances here did not fundamentally change the conditions of employment, and therefore did not amount to a constructive dismissal. In addition, the employer here gave Chapman options to peacefully resolve the issue.

If there is a concern over an issue regarding the payment of a bonus, it is important to attain legal advice. The issue may involve a disagreement over the interpretation of an employment clause, which requires a wholesome approach – it is often not enough to only consider the clause in question. For both employers and employees, it is advisable to seek legal assistance in determining the appropriate remedies.

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