When I retire, can I keep health care benefits?

| October 18th, 2017 | No Comments »

Question:  I have been employed by the same company for 22yrs and am 63 yrs old. Health care benefits are provided by the company and reduced benefits were available if you are over 60 when you retire. It was announced recently that no benefits will be provided for people that retire after Dec 31/17. I was planning to work for a few more years. I do not have a formal contact.  Is this legal?

Answer: This is most likely illegal. Retiree health care benefits, if offered by an employer, are extremely important to retirees and their families. They could be considered a fundamental part of your compensation package and a form of deferred compensation for contributions that you have made to the company over the course of your career (i.e. like a long-term incentive plan). Since the retiree benefits were available to you until now, when you are on the cusp of retirement, you reasonably expected that these benefits would be available on retirement and arguably planned your affairs taking these benefits into account.

As such, unless you signed an employment contract or the employer had a written policy that you knew about, which specifically and clearly provided that the company had a right to amend or cancel the retiree benefits at any time, the company cannot simply take away this benefit, without providing proper notice to you.
In this case, you did not have a written employment contract (and I assume there is no policy), so the employer could not have reserved the right to eliminate the retiree benefit plan at any time. This means that the only way the employer could take away the retiree benefits from you while you are still working is by giving you “reasonable notice” of the change. Here, the employer proposes to put the changes into effect within mere months – this is not proper notice. The employer should have given you 18-24 months of notice if it wanted to make a significant change to your contract. You, therefore, have grounds to challenge the elimination of the benefits in December 2017 and a potential claim for constructive dismissal.

Can attending a white supremacist rally be grounds for dismissal?

| September 11th, 2017 | No Comments »

After several attendees of last month’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., were outed on social media and then quickly fired, Canadian employers are asking, “Can attending a white supremacist rally be grounds for dismissal?”

The answer is yes – but with several caveats.

 Freedom of speech does not translate to freedom from workplace consequences. Canadians are given the right to express their personal views, political preferences or ideologies, whether privately or in public. Although their opinions and behaviour may be perfectly legal, that does not render them immune from workplace discipline or dismissal.

Outside of unionized employees, an employer is well within its legal rights to discharge employees for virtually any reason, or for absolutely no reason at all, as long as a proper severance payment is provided. This is the beauty of Canadian dismissal law; paying severance makes just about any dismissal decision justified.

Technically, there is no difference between firing an employee because he or she identifies with white supremacists and firing that same employee because of restructuring. Neither employee has any right to challenge the basis for termination. And if a severance package is provided, there also should be no difference in the amount required.

The more interesting question is whether firing an employee for attending a rally can be seen as a form of misconduct such that there is just cause for dismissal without any severance at all. This is where dismissal law gets tricky. Termination for any form of misconduct without pay is usually difficult for employers to justify as they first have to prove that the punishment fits the alleged crime. But if the correct conditions are met, it can and should be done.

If an employee is publicly outed on social media for his or her participation at a white supremacist rally, it could be cause for dismissal.

Employers have a legitimate interest in protecting their brand and reputation, especially online. As the mob mentality of social media is now more powerful than ever before, an employee publicly shamed online, even for privately held beliefs, can be indirectly causing damage to an employer’s reputation and putting that employer’s decisions in the spotlight. In the United States, several employers faced extreme backlash when their employees were outed for attending a rally. An employer who does not take action in these circumstances could face far more negative publicity than an employer that takes quick steps to distance itself from that employee.

A more likely case for dismissal without severance is where there is some form of link between an employee’s behaviour and the workplace. Distributing hate propaganda to colleagues, posting flyers or pictures in the workplace or encouraging co-workers to agree with certain ideological beliefs, is a more-clear-cut case to deny severance.

Human-rights legislation across the country states that employers have a legal duty to provide workplaces free from harassment and discrimination, which extends to ensuring the actions of their employees do not create or even potentially create a poisoned workplace. While holding certain views or expressing them privately is not illegal, bringing them into the workplace for others to see and hear is a form of indirect discrimination that could lead to a successful human-rights complaint against both the offending employee and his or her employer.

If other employees refuse to work with an individual who is identified as supremacist, even if on his or her personal time, it could also lead to a court upholding a dismissal without severance. In a recent case, an employee was terminated for misconduct after he was charged for possession of child pornography. In upholding the dismissal, the court found that the charges themselves were so detrimental to the workplace and employee morale that the employer had no other option but to immediately fire him.

What conclusions can we draw?

Employees are clearly allowed to hold personal opinions and views, even racist ones, without fear that their thoughts or prejudices will follow them back to their desk. This by itself it not grounds to dismiss for cause, nor could it ever be. But once these views cause harm or potentially cause harm to an employer’s business interests, no employee should expect that any workplace law would protect them.

Author: Daniel Lublin

Publication: The Globe and Mail

Know what you are owed past employment

| July 25th, 2017 | No Comments »

It is standard to receive a notice when an employer wishes to end an employment relation. This notice must grant a reasonable amount of time for the employee to find a comparable job. Alternatively, the employer may provide the employee payment equivalent to the amount the employee would have earned during the notice period, inclusive of all benefits, in lieu of a notice period. When an employer fails to provide notice, then the employee may litigate to receive the notice pay for the breach of contract. The length of the notice period or pay in lieu must consider certain factors, such as age, position, length of service and labour market conditions. Overall, notice period is intended to place an employee in a comparable position had there been no termination. However, employees may also face harsh treatment from employers wishing they resign, in hopes the employee leaves voluntarily – be mindful that an employee may still seek notice damages in this instance. If the time leading to dismissal and manner of dismissal itself caused significant hardship, employees may be owed additional compensation in aggravated and/or punitive damages.

 Aggravated damages are awarded as additional compensation to the employee when it can be established that the manner of dismissal was done in bad faith, and that the breach of contract caused mental distress or damages to reputation as it relates to future employment opportunities. Bad faith conduct may include being extremely insensitive or untruthful in the dismissal process. Further, the employee must be able to prove that damages such as mental distress were also suffered. For instance, it is not enough to claim mental distress or psychological harm. Rather, there must be evidence that proves mental distress was suffered during the course of dismissal.

Punitive Damages are awarded to the employee to punish the employer for actions during the dismissal that the courts find exceptionally indecent. For punitive damages to be awarded, there needs to be an ‘independent actionable wrong’ such as a breach of good faith. To be clear, these are additional wrongs committed by the employer, independent of the breach of contract. There also may be punitive damages awarded if it is determined that the employer’s misconduct was so malicious that it offends the court’s sense of decency – an example being an employer exploiting an employee’s disability in attempt to force them to quit.  Depending on the wrongs committed, damages may range from $10 000 – $450 000. It is important to note that punitive damages require wrongs that are exceptionally reprehensible, and are thus rarely awarded. An employment law expert will be able to assess the possibility of receiving such damages.

 Overall, when facing a dismissal that caused exceptional difficulty, it is advisable to seek the assistance of an employment lawyer. It may be the case that notice pay does not fairly compensate the harm suffered, and additional damages will need to be pursued.

Constructive Dismissal – An Intolerable Environment or Culture

| July 6th, 2017 | No Comments »

When an employer unilaterally changes a fundamental term of an employee’s job, then an employee may quit and claim ‘constructive dismissal’. Essentially, what this means is that the changes to the employment relation would have left any reasonable individual with no other option rather than to quit. The employee may then claim constructive dismissal, and if successful, would be owed a severance (referred to as ‘notice pay’) as compensation.

Unilateral changes that usually trigger constructive dismissal include significant reduction of pay, demotion, discrimination, reduction of hours and so on. The cause of a constructive dismissal is usually easily identified as a single factor of significant affect. However, the courts do not necessarily look at a single factor. Constructive dismissal may result from several changes or circumstances that create an intolerable environment for an employee. The cumulative effect, therefore, would trigger a constructive dismissal.

This was demonstrated in Shah v. Xerox Canada Ltd 2000 (OCA). Shah was an employee of Xerox for 12 and a half years with a good performance record, bonuses and raises. Shah accepted an internal transfer and reported to a manager with a personality and philosophy that was not compatible with Shah’s. Shah’s new manager was aggressive in style, very outgoing and confident, assertive and combative; Shah was reserved, withdrawn, and gentle. This created uncertain expectations for Shah, as his new team encouraged an ‘empowerment’ culture, free thinking and independence, whereas Shah liked direction and structure. Shah’s new manager raised multiple performance concerns. The first critical performance review used poor factual evidence, and the second one provided poor detail and questionable claims. Shah then received 3 unexpected and unwarranted warning letters over a 2-month span, the last placing Shah on probation without defining any expectations or allowing an opportunity to respond. This also added to the mental distress Shah was experiencing in addition to stress from his personal life. Shah requested a transfer and once his manager denied him, Shah quit and successfully claimed constructive dismissal.

The court considered the cumulative effect of Shah’s change of environment. This included the change in culture, the manager’s style and treatment towards Shah, including the lack of detail contained in the warning letters, unclear expectations and unfounded claims. Whereas Xerox argued that constructive dismissal must result from a unilaterally imposed fundamental change to the employment contract, the court maintained that the focus must be on whether the employer intends to be bound by the employment contract. The cumulative effect of the multiple warnings that lacked details for corrective action signified Xerox did not intend to continue the employment relation with Shah. This, in addition to the cultural change affecting Shah, resulted in a constructive dismissal.

Overall, constructive dismissal may result from conditions not typical of most constructive dismissal causes. It is important to speak with an employment law expert if faced with an intolerable situation in the workplace that makes continued employment unreasonable.

Constructive Dismissal: Some common signs and considerations to make

| June 19th, 2017 | No Comments »

Constructive dismissal is a legal term that means the employer imposed changes upon the working relationship that caused the employee to quit. This, in turn, is viewed the same as an unlawful dismissal and entitles the employee damages in notice pay at the very least.

To claim constructive dismissal, the change to the employee’s job must be unilateral, meaning that the employee did not consent to the changes. In addition, the changes must also be fundamental to the employment relationship, signifying that the employer intended to end the employment relation. Courts will examine the particulars of each case to determine if the changes made amounted to constructive dismissal. Some common examples include changes in the amount of responsibility one has, having supervisory duties taken away, intentionally making the work environment intolerable (bullying, ridicule, humiliation), or a decrease in pay.

Having a significant increase of job duties without an increase in compensation may also amount to constructive dismissal, however, there are things courts look for when making this determination. Courts will look at whether the restructuring was necessary for the survival of the business, the state of the economy, and whether such changes were made in good faith and in relation to a business goal. If there is a sign that an employee agreed to the extra duties, whether implicitly or explicitly, a constructive dismissal claim will usually be unsuccessful.

When deciding to ‘quit’ and pursue a constructive dismissal claim, it is important to ask whether the changes imposed signify the employer’s intention to end the employment relation. Absent of a significant pay decrease, it is important to consult with an employment lawyer before deciding to leave employment. What may initially be seen as a fundamental change to an employee’s job may not always be the case. Alternatively, for exceptional circumstances, additional damages in addition to notice pay may be necessary to rectify the treatment to which an employee was subjected. Always seek the advice of an expert before deciding to claim constructive dismissal.

I felt forced to resign as a result of an illness or disability – what are my entitlements?

| April 27th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Disability and Human Rights Law in the Workplace:

Employees have the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of discriminatory grounds, which includes Illness or disability. If an employee is faced with an illness or disability and needs accommodation to complete their work duties, an employer is obligated to accommodate to the best of their abilities. Unfortunately, there have been instances where rather than accommodating, managers or employers will seek to dismiss an employee or make the employee’s situation difficult to the point where they are forced to resign. This may include harassment, refusal to accommodate, or other actions that target the worker’s disability or illness in order to make work intolerable. In such instances, employee can quit and claim constructive dismissal. This simply means that the employer created an environment that would force any reasonable person to resign – in the eyes of the courts, this is the same as a wrongful dismissal.

Damages:

An employee that is wrongfully terminated is entitled to their severance package in addition to any entitlements for damages under human rights law.  Under human rights law, damages will be assessed by the seriousness of the discrimination and the effect it had on the employee (mental distress). Seriousness is assessed by the duration of the harassment suffered or an employee’s length of employment. This can apply to any harassment by management or supervisors, or coworkers that targets the illness/disability of an individual in the workplace. Under human rights law, these damages are intended to right the wrong of the violation suffered by the victim – not to ‘punish’ the employer. However, for extremely reprehensible acts, the courts seek to punish the action itself in order to send a message of retribution, denunciation and deterrence.  To highlight the difference, consider the case of Strudwick v. Applied Consumer & Clinical Evaluations, 2016 (ONCA).

Strudwick (Vicky) v. Applied Consumer & Clinical Evaluations:

In Strudwick v. Applied Consumers, Strudwick was an employee of 15 years that suddenly developed severe deafness from an unknown cause. Applied Consumers refused to accommodate Vicky, and her supervisor and general manager started a course of “public belittling, harassment and isolation in ways relating to her disability” and took additional action to make Vicky’s deafness more difficult in relation to her work duties. For instance, her supervisor made other workers call Vicky instead of using email for any inquiries, making it near impossible for Vicky to perform her job. At one point, management suggested that Vicky quit and claim disability. It was clear that these actions were done to force Vicky to resign. Management eventually dismissed Vicky on frivolous claims in front of her coworkers in a humiliating manner.

The termination was found to be wrongful dismissal and Vicky was awarded her entitled severance pay. Further, Vicky also was awarded $40 000 in damages for the violations she suffered under human rights law to rectify the wrongs. The judge, however, felt that simply rectifying the wrongs here did not denounce the nature of the actions management took. An additional $55 000 was awarded in punitive damages due to management’s harsh, malicious and reprehensible actions leading to termination.

Concluding Remarks:

The case above resulted in $246 049 in total damages due to further damages awarded for intentional infliction of mental distress and aggravated damages. If you are a worker faced with a situation of discrimination and harassment, it is important to seek legal consultation. Assessing damages for human rights violations may extend beyond human rights legislation for actions that are morally reprehensible. It is always best to seek the advice of an employment lawyer to ensure you receive just compensation in extreme cases.

Medical Marijuana Use in a Safety Sensitive Workplace: Can an Employer Deny an Employee Use?

| March 13th, 2017 | No Comments »

Medical marijuana may be prescribed for several medical reasons. Under human rights law in Ontario, workers have a right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of ‘disability’ which encompasses illness. The use of medicinal marijuana in the workplace must be treated the same as any other prescription drug that a worker uses for a medical condition. In order to use medicinal marijuana in the workplace, the employee must provide medical documentation stating the nature of the disability (reason for use), and whether he/she is able to safely work while using medicinal marijuana while requesting accommodation.

Under human rights law, employers must accommodate an employee with a disability up to the point of ‘undue hardship’. In safety sensitive workplaces, accommodation may present increased challenges for employers. Under occupational health and safety law, workers cannot be a threat to their own safety or the safety of others within the workplace. An employer must, therefore, balance the duty to accommodate and the need to maintain a safe working environment.

There is no blanket standard that can be applied with regards to accommodation of medicinal marijuana use in safety sensitive workplaces. Each case must be examined in relation to the worker’s needs, the work duties and organization of work, and other factors that may have an effect on accommodation. For instance, the interconnectedness of work roles on an assembly line may present greater difficulties in terms of granting a worker the time needed to take prescribed usage of marijuana. If usage requires inhalation, then the worker must be relieved by another available worker that can perform the same role. This is because inhalation must be done in a designated smoking area. Accommodation efforts in this hypothetical may raise question such as: can other workers that can perform the same role be made available at all times? Can the marijuana be taken by ingestion with food while on the assembly line? Does being under the influence raise a health and safety concern? Can this worker be retrained for other similar roles that would alleviate potential health and safety and/or accommodation issues? With regards to the worker’s ability to perform the job duties without any concern for health and safety while under the influence, the worker’s physician must provide documentation showing that there are no issues.

The above was only one of many different scenarios that may arise. Employers are advised to have sufficient workplace policies with regards to prescription medication and workplace safety. This includes having procedures for reporting the use of medicinal marijuana and requesting accommodation, proper procedures for using medicinal marijuana when needed, and defining what is considered impairment with regards to health and safety matters. This is by no means a comprehensive guide. The consultation of an employment law expert should be sought so that unnecessary and costly future litigation is avoided for failing to accommodate up to ‘undue hardship’.

Are you entitled to bonus pay that would have been earned during your notice period in the case of wrongful dismissal?

| March 6th, 2017 | No Comments »

A notice period is required by an employer seeking to terminate an employee. Employers can either provide the employee with notice or pay that would have been earned had the employee worked throughout the notice period. When an employee is terminated without a notice or pay in lieu, this is a wrongful termination and a breach of the employment contract. The remedy is damages paid by the employer in the amount equal to the compensation that would have been earned by the employee during the reasonable notice period that is owed.

What about bonuses that would have been owed to the employee, but require the employee to be “actively employed” at the time the bonus is to be paid? A clause that requires ‘active employment’ during the time of payment does not apply in the case of wrongful dismissal. This was affirmed in the case of Paquette vs. TeraGo Networks Inc. (2016). Employees are generally entitled to bonuses that would have been paid during the notice period, regardless of whether or not the employee was actively working during the time. This is especially the case when bonus pay is essential to overall compensation (i.e. a significant proportion).

To gain a better understanding, it helps to review the Paquette (employee) vs. TeraGo Inc. case. Paquette was under an employment contract that required him to be “actively employed” at the time the bonus was to be paid. The bonus here was set to be paid every February for the previous year’s work. The judgement by the Superior Court of Justice awarded Paquette 17 months of damages for only base-salary and benefits. Paquette appealed this decision, arguing that he is also entitled to bonuses that would have been received had he actually worked for the duration of the notice time (17 months). The Court of Appeals (Ontario) awarded Paquette the bonus pay as well. Simply put, the notice pay is meant to place an employee in a similar position had there been no breach in the employment contract. Here, if Paquette was not wrongful dismissed, he would have collected his bonus at each payment date (February 2015 and 2016). In other words, Paquette had the right to work but was prevented from doing so as a result of the employer’s breach. For the year that Paquette did not work (2016), the bonus was calculated by taking the average of the previous years’ bonus payment.

If you are an employee that receives bonuses as an essential part of compensations (ie. a significant portion), then a clause requiring you to be employed at the time of bonus pay may leave you vulnerable if wrongfully dismissed. Employees in this situation are encouraged to seek legal advice to ensure you are fairly compensated for damages and are fully aware of your workplace rights.

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

| 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.

Geographic Relocation and Constructive Dismissal

| February 17th, 2017 | No Comments »

Constructive dismissal is when an employer alters the fundamental conditions of the employment contract, which gives the employee little choice but to resign. Many employees do feel that relocation is constructive dismissal. The general rule for establishing constructive dismissal is whether the employment contract has been fundamentally changed. Relocation may be a fundamental change to the employment contract as displayed in past court cases. The following are a few factors to be aware of when deciding to seek representation by an employment lawyer.

It is important to be aware of whether relocation is an implied term of the employment contract as terms of the employment contract are often not in writing. ‘Implied’ terms are certain provision that should be reasonably assumed even though not formally written. In the case of a relocation request from an employer, the request may be implied in a number of circumstances. This includes whether the employer has relocated other workers in the past, whether the business is international (has many locations internationally), and the size of the organization. When the business is international and the position is not a demotion, it is generally seen as an implied condition of the employment contract and therefore not grounds for constructive dismissal.

Other factors to be aware of are whether the relocation is temporary, whether there are changes to other fundamental terms of the employment contract (such as pay and responsibilities), whether relocation expenses are being covered by the employer and whether undue hardship will result from the relocation. Further, the relocation must be done in good faith (i.e. for a legitimate business purpose). If you feel that a relocation request would be constructive dismissal for the reasons mentioned or any other factors, it is important to seek legal consultation from an employment law expert.

Courts have ruled against employers when relocation was not a term included in writing within an employment contract, even when the business was international with offices in other countries. For employers, it advisable to included relocation clauses in initial written employment contracts if this is a reasonable expectation given the nature of the company’s operation. For any uncertainties, seek the advice of an employment lawyer.