Probationary period: Common Law v. Employment Standards Law

| June 7th, 2017 | No Comments »

It is commonly assumed that the probationary period is an implied condition of employment. Although the probationary period is part of employment standards law – for instance, the Employment Standards Act (2000) in Ontario stipulates that employees employed for less than 3 months are not entitled to statutory notice – this does not mean that probation is an implied term of employment. Employees that are not subject to a probationary period clause may be awarded notice pay at common law in the event such issue is brought to court.

Including a probationary clause is especially important when dealing with highly skilled employees, as they would be entitled to a longer notice period if challenged in court. The clause should demonstrate that each party contemplated the need to test each others’ suitability, and the option for either party to choose to end the employment relation within the set probationary period. It is also necessary to ensure that the probationary clause adheres to employment standards legislation, as failing to do so will render the clause unenforceable. The probationary period, therefore, cannot be longer than what is stated in employment standards law ­– in Ontario, probation is a three-month period.

The courts have outlined the common law standards of termination during the probationary period that would relieve employers of a notice requirement.  In the case Mision v. Bank of Nova Scotia (1994) heard by the Ontario Supreme Court, there were guidelines outlined for the employer when demonstrating  that the employee was not suitable during the probationary period. Firstly, the employer should be able to justify the discharge of an employee on probation. This burden of proof is less than what is required for ‘just cause’ after the probationary period has ended. During the probationary period, the employer must demonstrate that the employee was not suitable, which may include more subjective reasons such as character, compatibility, uncertainty of future performance or their ability to meet business objectives, and so forth. The employer’s judgment towards the claim of unsuitability will not be questioned, however, the motivation for dismissal must be shown to be in good faith and not for unjustifiable reasons.

Overall, employers should be prepared to support claims of unsuitability as much as possible. Setting out instances that demonstrate unsuitability within the probationary clause would aid in this objective in the case it is challenged in court. Employers should also be cautious of limiting sick days to zero, as the courts have not been favourable to employers when including unpredictable circumstances within probationary clauses.

Employment Insurance Requirements under 3 scenarios: Quitting, Dismissed for Cause, Dismissed Without Cause

| June 7th, 2017 | No Comments »

Eligibility Requirements for Employment Insurance

Paying into the Employment Insurance program is usually automatic, with regular deductions taken from you paycheque – individuals that are self-employed may choose to pay into EI. Further, you must have worked the minimum required hours within the last year. This falls between 420 – 700 hours depending on your geographic area. For Toronto, the required annual amount of hours is 630. Individuals must also be without an income for 7 consecutive days, be actively seeking employment and maintain a record of the specific employers contacted along with the date.

Quitting

To be eligible for Employment Insurance (EI) in Canada, your loss of employment cannot be your own fault.  This means that if you voluntarily quit your employment you will not be eligible to claim EI.

Dismissed for Cause

If an employer dismisses an employee for cause then the employee is usually not entitled to EI. Being dismissed for cause means that the employee has done something wrong to warrant a dismissal without notice or a severance package. When an employee is dismissed as a result of a single incident, the wrongful act must be fundamentally incompatible with the employment relation, making continued employment unfeasible. Examples may include theft, workplace violence, or breach of confidentiality.

Dismissal for cause can also happen as the last step of progressive discipline. This requires an employee to have committed multiple wrongs, receiving a disciplinary measure for each instance. Whatever the case may be, if you feel that dismissal was not warranted, it is important to seek legal consultation. In addition to missing out on EI benefits, an employer would also owe additional payment in damages.

Dismissed Without Cause:

If an employer dismisses an employee without cause, the employee is owed notice or pay in lieu. This does not disqualify an employee’s eligibility for EI – employees that are dismissed without cause are eligible to apply for EI benefits, providing they meet the criteria mentioned above.

 

A Case of Employee Dishonesty Resulting in Termination

| April 4th, 2017 | No Comments »

Where there is ‘just cause’ for termination an employer is not obligated provide an employee notice of termination or pay in lieu.  ‘Just cause’ means that the employee has done something wrong that deserves termination as a disciplinary measure. This can either be one act that strikes a fundamental aspect of the employment relation or a final step in the progressive disciplinary process. Overall, the punishment must be proportional to the misconduct of the employee. For a single act to trigger a just cause termination, it must be fundamentally incompatible with the duties of employment or significantly breach the employer’s trust of an employee. There are two aspects that must be considered when determining whether termination is warranted (i.e. proportionate to the employee’s misconduct). This includes the nature and extent of the misconduct, and the surrounding circumstances.

Fernandes v. Peel Educational and Tutorial Services Limited:

Fernandes v. Peel Educational and Tutorial Services Limited (Peel Educational Ltd.) is a case which deals with employee dishonesty and termination. Fernandes was a teacher of 10 years (1999 – 2009) with a good employment record. Fernandes was also involved with extracurricular activities, including coaching and after-school events. In the 2008 – 2009 school year, Mr. Fernandes was found to have falsified various grades for the students in his classes. This was an attempt to meet the deadline for report cards, for which he had been given 3 extensions. After an investigation and 3 meetings, the school terminated Mr. Fernandes’ employment without notice or severance, calling this a case of ‘academic fraud’. Upon analysis, the Ontario Court of Appeals ruled that there was just cause for termination. In reviewing Mr. Fernandes’ misconduct of dishonesty, the court considered the nature and extend of the misconduct, and the surrounding circumstances.

  1. The nature and extent of the misconduct:

The court considered the fact that Mr. Fernandes assigned inaccurate and false grades for his students’ assignments, both initially and upon resubmission, and that Mr. Fernandes released these grades for the students’ interim report-cards. Further, Mr. Fernandes lying to the employer in an attempt to cover-up his actions was also considered in assessing the seriousness of this misconduct. The key here is to understand the seriousness of this misconduct as it related to his employment relation. Teachers hold the trust of the school, the students and the students’ parents to fairly evaluate the students’ progress and development. The dishonesty of this misconduct, therefore, was fundamentally incompatible with the duties required by a teacher, causing irreparable harm to the trust placed in Mr. Fernandes by all parties.

  1. The surrounding circumstances:

The courts consider both the employer and employee’s surrounding circumstances when further evaluating whether just cause is warranted. In this case, it is important to understand the harm that Mr. Fernandes’ misconduct could have done to the school as a business. Being a private school, Peel Educational Ltd.’s authority to grant credits and Ontario Secondary School Diplomas is dependent upon meeting the standards in place by the Ministry of Education. The severity of harm which could have resulted by Mr. Fernandes’ misconduct placed the school’s business in jeopardy. Further, Mr. Fernandes’ actions also violated his employment contract to fairly evaluate his students and the school’s trust in his professionalism, making continued employment a significant issue.

The court also considered Mr. Fernandes’ past behaviour, as he was employed with the school for 10 years with no prior performance issues. However, Mr. Fernandes did not have any explanation for his misconduct. He did face a deadline to submit his grades which was extended 3 times. However, Mr. Fernandes stated to his superiors that there were no life troubles that were preventing or hindering his teaching duties.

Was dismissal warranted?

In consideration of the above, it was determined that the seriousness of Mr. Fernandes’ misconduct did warrant just cause for dismissal and thus no severance package or notice was required. Mr. Fernandes’ actions displayed a complete disregard for his professional duties as a teacher, which were incompatible with the essential nature of the job. Given the harm done to the employment relation, the court agreed with the disciplinary action of the school.

If you are an employer and are faced with serious misconduct by an employee, it is important to be mindful of how the misconduct affects the employment relationship when considering termination without notice or severance pay. It is always advisable to seek the opinion of an employment lawyer to avoid unnecessary and costly future litigation. Each case presents its own unique set of issues, so a thorough assessment of whether just cause is warranted should be conducted.

Dismissal for Poor Performance: Does an Employer Need to Provide Severance?

| March 21st, 2017 | No Comments »

Only if there is just cause for termination, the employer may terminate the employee without severance pay. As an employer, it is very difficult to establish just cause for employee incompetence or poor performance. To do so, the employer must prove that the employee fails to perform essential duties or meet the required working standard, and that this has been ongoing; an isolated incident of poor performance will likely not be sufficient. To establish just cause for termination, there must be an established objective standard of performance, and proof that the employee’s poor performance is their own fault. Any mitigating factors can be considered by the courts. Among other, mitigating factors may include volume of work, whether the employee was hired as an experienced hire, and the training provided.

If an employer claims that there are ongoing issues of unacceptable performance, then the employer must provide a warning to the employee. The warning must include the employer’s performance related concerns and the consequences that may result. It is advisable that the warning be in writing and is clearly presented so that there is no possibility of confusion. An effective warning will identify what the employee is doing wrong, along with the preferred standard by the employee. Further, support for improvement such as supplemental training should be provided and stated in the warning, with a time limit for improvement and potential consequences for failure to meet the stated objective standard.

There are rare instances that may grant an employee just cause to terminate without a severance for isolated incidences. These cases usually involve gross negligence or incompetence that cause an employer significant harm, or a lack of skills that the employee claimed to have during the hiring process.

Whenever faced with an issue of poor performance by an employee, it is always best to seek the advice of an employment law expert. It is difficult to establish just cause for performance related issues, so any decisions to terminate without severance pay should be reviewed by an employment lawyer.

Termination Clauses and Contracting Out: Clarity Given by Recent Ontario Appeals Court Ruling

| March 13th, 2017 | No Comments »

Employment Standards Act Review:

The Employment Standards Act (2000) grants employees minimal guarantees. In terms of termination, the Employment Standards Act (ESA) provides one week of notice or pay in lieu for every year of service, for a maximum of 8 weeks. Severance pay is a separate payment that employers must provide if their payroll exceeds 2.5 million or if the employee was one of 50 employees that has been terminated within a 6-month period. In addition, employers are to provide all benefits throughout the notice period or pay in lieu. Employers are legally prohibited from contracting out of the ESA, unless the clause offers a greater benefit to the employee. In the instance where an employment contract offers less than the minimum provided under the ESA, then the provision in the contract is void. In this instance, the courts will award the employee common law notice (damages), which are often considerably more than minimal standards. A recent case heard before the Court of Appeals for Ontario highlights the importance of unambiguous language in termination clauses, as any ambiguity will render the clause unenforceable.

Facts from Wood vs. Deeley (OCA 2017):

 In the case, Wood served 8 years as a Sales and Event Planner, earning about $100 000 annually including benefits. Wood’s termination clause provided 2 weeks of notice for each year served (or pay in lieu) and stated that Wood is only entitled to the terms set within the termination clause of the employment agreement. Deeley ended up paying Wood 21 weeks worth of salary, which was more than the minimum Wood would have received under the ESA. Deeley argued that the extra payment provided after termination covered Wood’s benefits. Wood argued that the termination clause was unenforceable, however, because it excluded benefit pay and severance pay as per the wording of the clause. The Appeals Court of Ontario agreed, ruling that the clause was void because it contracted out of the ESA. Only the cause itself was to be considered in terms of enforceability, which means remedies implemented afterwards are irrelevant. Wood was awarded 39 weeks of notice pay (9 months), Wood’s common law entitlement.

Main Issues in the Termination Clause:

All-inclusive clause:

The language used in the termination clause effectively limited Wood’s entitlements to those provided in the clause. This meant that anything not covered in the clause but guaranteed under the ESA to not apply. The ESA entitles employees to their benefits during the notice period. The clause did not mention anything about Wood’s benefits and therefore was found to contract out of the ESA.

Ambiguous use of ‘notice pay’:

The termination clause Wood was subject to provided more than the minimum required notice pay under the ESA. However, notice and severance pay are two separate entitlements under the ESA, and combining both under “pay” here created ambiguity. For example, the termination clause entitled Wood to 2 weeks notice for every year of employment, or pay in lieu. If 10 weeks were given as notice, then the remaining 6 weeks were not enough to cover the minimum amount of severance pay that Wood was entitled to under the ESA. Rather, the termination clause should have allotted the necessary amount to each, severance and notice, rather than combining both under “pay”.

 

This case shows that employers are held to a rigorous standard in terms of drafting employment contracts. This reflects the purpose and intentions of the ESA. The ESA aims to protect employees that are unaware of their employment rights and the court seeks to interpret these clauses in ways that encourage employers to draft clauses that comply with minimal standards. As such, when determining the legal compliance of a termination clause, only the clause itself is considered and any remedies the employer seeks to implement at the time of termination will be irrelevant to the enforceability of the clause. It is important to seek legal advice from an employment law expert to ensure termination clauses are properly drafted. Any ambiguity will either be interpreted by the courts in the most favourable way for the employee or be deemed unenforceable, which entitles the employee to common law notice (damages). Again, common law notice (damages) is usually far more than minimal standards.

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 an Employer Terminate an Employee Charged But Not Yet Convicted of a Criminal Offence?

| January 23rd, 2017 | No Comments »

An employer may be concerned about damaging their reputation by continuing to employ an individual that has been charged with a criminal offence. This may especially be the case if the employer is known to be involved with the community in which it operates its business. In trying to establish whether there is just cause for termination, a court looks at the following:

  • The amount of responsibility the employee has in relation to his/her duties
  • The degree to which the company’s reputation in the community may be harmed
  • Whether the accusation involved the use of company equipment

To illustrate, the case of Kelly v Linamar (Ontario Supreme Court of Justice) speaks to the above listed points quite well.

Kelly supervised 10-12 employees, managed deliveries and was in contact with customers on a regular basis. Linamar is located in Guelph, Ont., a small town of about 100 000 residents. Linamar had a great reputation in Guelph, especially with its contributions to children for educational donations, sponsoring many youth sports teams and assisting local schools in educational initiatives. Kelly was charged with possession of child pornography at the time he was employed by Linamar and the local media identified Kelly as an employee of Linamar.

Linamar terminated Kelly before he was convicted of this criminal offense and the court found the termination was justified. Considering the points above, Linamar was justified in terminating Kelly because:

The amount of responsibility the employee has in relation to duties:

Kelly was a supervisor and was in constant contact with customers. The fact that the community was aware of the charges against Kelly due to the local press made this a concern for Linamar and its brand.

The degree to which the company’s reputation in the community may be harmed:

Given that the charges dealt with allegations concerning children, this directly conflicted with the image Linamar had in the community. Linamar made efforts to positively impact the children of the Guelph community. Given the press releases and Kelly’s interaction with customers within the Guelph community, Kelly’s continued employment definitely posed a threat to Linamar’s reputation. This was the most significant factor in this case.

Whether the accusation involved the use of company equipment

Kelly did not use company computers to commit the alleged acts. Had he done so, this would undoubtedly be enough for termination.

This case illustrated the three key factors to be determined if employers are considering terminating an employee for being charged criminally for acts committed outside of the workplace. It is important to understand that such decisions should be made with careful consideration of all the factors. The unique facts of each case must be considered because an employee being charged with a crime that is morally reprehensible, such as the one described, does not on its own grant an employer cause to terminate an employee without compensation (notice pay).  Please seek the advice of an employment law expert if faced with a similar situation.

How To Choose the Best Wrongful Termination Lawyers

| January 18th, 2017 | No Comments »

wrongful terminationYou have questions about your wrongful termination, but how can you find a wrongful termination lawyer you can trust?

Do your research.  Like all service-based industries, it pays to spend some time and effort researching potential wrongful termination lawyers.

What to look for? Look for a wrongful termination lawyer who practices exclusively in employment, human rights and/or labour law, and licensed to practice in the jurisdiction in which you work or reside.  You probably do not want to entrust your case to a general practitioner as employment law is nuanced and changes frequently.

Look for someone who is regularly interviewed, published, and does speaking engagements with reputable organizations.  That way you are sure to find a wrongful termination lawyer who is up to date on the state of the law.

You may also wish to speak with someone certified by the Law Society of Upper Canada as an expert in the field.

Ask around.  Talk to friends, relatives, anyone who has experience with a wrongful termination lawyer. Get their impressions of the lawyer, the firm, their fees, and what their overall experience was like.

Beware of wrongful termination lawyers who want to meet with you for free.  Often you get what you pay for and these wrongful termination lawyers may just be fishing for lucrative cases.

Feel free to get a second opinion or meet with a few lawyers at different firms until you find the right wrongful termination lawyer for you and you case.

Finding a lawyer and a firm that you are comfortable with is key as a successful case depends on trust and communication between lawyer and client.

 

Author: Ellen Low, Whitten & Lublin

Employee Duty to Mitigate Damages After Being Terminated

| January 18th, 2017 | No Comments »

Being terminated from employment can be an emotional and impassioned time but it is important that employees remain mindful of their duty to mitigate damages. This simply means that an employee must make the necessary efforts to lessen their losses and, in turn, the amount of damages the employer is obligated to pay. In court, employees are required to initially show that they have taken reasonable steps to mitigate damages.

The duty to mitigate requires the employee to accept a comparable position if offered by the employer providing the working environment has not turned hostile. As established by past court cases, this offer may be made immediately or after some time has passed. The offer, however, must be a position that is comparable and not one that leads to embarrassment or loss of status. In determining whether a position is comparable, factors usually include wage/salary, location, status, and training. Employees must also seek and accept comparable offers of employment from other employers. If it is proven that a comparable position was offered by another employer and it was turned down, employees may not be entitled to damages from their previous employer.

If an employer challenges the employee’s efforts in mitigating damages, they must go beyond just proving that there was an availability of comparable jobs during that time. The employer must also show that the employee had a reasonable chance at obtaining such positions and that the employee failed to pursue the employment opportunities.

There are many other factors that can influence the amount owed in damages depending on the complexity of the situation. Such factors may include retraining and career changes, the decision for the employee to pursue their own business and so forth. It is thus important to speak to a legal expert to clear up any uncertainties and to ensure the amount paid in damages is fair.

Employees’ Wrongful Actions and Employers’ Liability

| December 20th, 2016 | No Comments »

wrongful actionsEmployers may be found liable for the wrongful actions of their employees under certain conditions. The wrong must be tortious – this is a wrongful action that can be brought to civil court – which includes torts such as trespassing, assault, theft, negligence and so forth. There are certain factors established by the courts in determining whether the employer is vicariously liable for the wrongful act(s) of their employee. These factors are analyzed thought the ‘Salmond’ test established by common law.

Salmond Test – Vicarious Liability

The ‘Salmond’ test seeks to establish whether the employer created an opportunity for the employee to commit the wrongful action through the duties required for the position. If the act was related to such duties, then the employer can be found liable. The test seeks to analyze the following:

  • The opportunity the employer gave the employee
  • The extent to which the wrongful act may have furthered the employer’s aims (i.e. making this action more likely to be committed by the employee)
  • The extent to which the wrongful act was related to friction, confrontation or intimacy inherent to the position/business
  • The power conferred on the employee in relation to the victim
  • The vulnerability of the victims in relation to the employee’s power

In general terms, the principle underlying the ‘Salmond’ test is whether the duties required gave an enhanced opportunity for actions of wrongdoing. This can be examined though a combination of the above factors in the ‘Salmond’ test. Employers are encouraged to seek an employment law expert for a full understanding of any situation raising concern. The above is by no means comprehensive.

An example that illustrates the relevant principles is Bazley v. Curry (SCC 1999). This case established that vicarious liability extends to enterprise risk. Simply, this can be viewed as the necessary duties employees are given to conduct business in the specific industry. This means that employers can be found liable for the risks inherent in the job itself, and not just acts that are authorized by the employer.

Bazley v Curry Example

In Bazley v. Curry, the employer was a child care facility. Employees here were caretakers of mentally disabled children. The nature of this business required caregivers to have a relationship of total intervention – bathing, preparing children for bed, and so on. Mr. Curry was the caregiver and Bazley was the child subjected to abuse by Mr. Curry. The employer here was found to be vicariously liable for the wrongdoing. In simple terms, this was because Mr. Curry was put in a position that made the abuse more likely when examining the duties of the job. The focus here is on the enterprise risk.  The nature of the business made these actions by Mr. Curry more likely to occur; the employer was therefore vicariously liable.

Final Thoughts

The courts place an increased responsibility on employers for the actions of their employees for two reasons. The employer has the means to compensate potential victims for the wrongdoing of their employees. Also, the court recognizes the employer’s ability to deter their employees from committing such wrongful acts. This may include performing criminal background tests or placing third-party supervision as deemed necessary for the position and enterprise, as this will mitigate risk and deter employee wrongdoing. It is important for employers to be diligent and take the necessary precautions to prevent wrongful actions by employees.