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The Duty to Provide Reasonable Notice of Termination Cuts Both Ways

It is a relatively little-known fact to non-lawyers that just as employers are required to provide employees with reasonable notice of termination, employees are likewise required to provide employers with reasonable notice of resignation.  A 2016 Ontario Superior Court of Justice case has recently confirmed same.

In the case of Gagnon & Associates Inc. v. Jesso et al., the company sought damages from employee Barry Jesso (“Jesso”) for having resigned his employment without notice.  Jesso had been employed by Gagnon & Associates Inc. (the “Company”) for 10 years and at the time of resignation was responsible for approximately 30% of the Company’s annual HVAC sales.  His colleague Patrice Comeau, also a defendant in the litigation, was responsible for a further 30% of the Company’s annual sales.  In 2006 Jesso and Comeau approached one of the Company’s competitors and entered into an agreement with it to open a satellite office.  It was at that point that they both provided the Company with their notices of resignation.

The court stated that the notice of resignation period required by an employee will be a function of the employee’s position with the employer and the time that it would reasonably take the employer to replace the employee or otherwise take steps to adjust to the loss of the employee.  The court then made a finding on the evidence that although Jesso was not a fiduciary employee, a reasonable notice of resignation period was 2 months given that: (i) Jesso was responsible for a significant percentage of the Company’s sales; (ii) the market for experienced HVAC salespeople was limited and it would likely take approximately 2 months to find a replacement; and (iii) Jesso knew that the Company’s other senior salesperson was resigning on the same day, thereby putting the Company in a very difficult position.

It is important to bear in mind that where an employee has signed a proper employment agreement which sets out a notice of resignation period, the employee will probably be bound by that contractual provision.  Likewise, for employees who work in jurisdictions that have employment standards legislation containing a notice of resignation provision, they may be bound by same.  Finally, there is a long line of separate case-law which confirms that fiduciary employees have obligations to provide reasonable notice of resignation to their employers.  That said, the Gagnon v. Jesso case is a helpful reminder that even when there is no contract, no legislation and no fiduciary relationship, an employee may still owe his or her employer a reasonable notice of resignation period.

The case of Gagnon & Associates Inc. v. Jesso et al. can be found here:  https://www.canlii.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2016/2016onsc209/2016onsc209.html?autocompleteStr=gagnon%20%26%20associates&autocompletePos=3.

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The Duty to Provide Reasonable Notice of Termination Cuts Both Ways

Miscarriage is a Disability

In a recent interim decision of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, adjudicator Jennifer Scott found that miscarriage could constitute a “disability”.  The door was also left open for employees terminated due to miscarriage to claim discrimination due to sex.

In the case of Mou v. MHPM Project Leaders, Mou was off work for approximately 3 weeks in January 2013 due to injuries sustained from a slip and fall accident.  She subsequently suffered a miscarriage in June of the same year and was off work for 2 days.  Her employment was terminated in February 2014 and Mou alleged that the termination related to her absences from work.  In February of 2016, a hearing took place to determine the threshold issue of whether Mou had established that she suffered from a disability.

The employer argued that in order for an illness or injury to constitute a disability, there must be some aspect of permanence or persistence to the condition.  In short, the employer argued that Mou’s health issues were temporary in nature and that Mou fully recovered from them prior to her termination.  Adjudicator Scott felt otherwise.  In coming to her decision she noted that while normal ailments such as a cold or flu are transitory, a miscarriage is not a common ailment and is not transitory.  In reaching that conclusion, Adjudicator Scott made reference to the fact that Mou continued to feel “significant emotional distress from the miscarriage” to the date of the hearing.

No mention is made in the decision as to whether any expert evidence was adduced by the employer with respect to whether miscarriage is a common ailment and it is suspected that no such evidence was provided.  One wonders whether the decision might have been different if the adjudicator had heard evidence to the effect that at least 1 in every 4 pregnancies is believed to end in miscarriage, or that a majority of women have at least one miscarriage during their childbearing years.  While there is no doubt that miscarriage can lead to emotional distress and even physical problems, it is possible that had this expert evidence been provided, it might have affected the adjudicator’s conclusion that miscarriage is not a common ailment.

Separate and apart from the issue of the miscarriage, it is clear from the decision that Mou’s slip and fall injuries also constituted a disability as they took approximately 3 weeks to heal.  Just as importantly, Adjudicator Scott made note of the fact that the employer invited Mou to apply for short-term disability coverage after her slip and fall, which is presumed to have been an indication that the employer believed her to be disabled.

It is important to note that although the Tribunal concluded that a miscarriage can constitute a disability, there has not yet been a final hearing in this case and no determination has been made as to whether Mou’s disability was a factor in her employer’s decision to terminate employment.

The case of Mou v. MHPM Project Leaders may be found here:  http://www.canlii.org/en/on/onhrt/doc/2016/2016hrto327/2016hrto327.html.

 

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Miscarriage is a Disability

The Final Word on Dependent Contractors

I wrote last year about the Ontario Superior Court of Justice’s decision in the case of Keenan v. Canac Kitchens (a link to same can be found here:  http://www.employmentandlabour.com/?s=Canac).   Last week the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the Superior Court’s decision in Canac, and added some additional guidance with respect to the law surrounding dependent contractor relationships.

First, a quick reminder as to the facts of this particular case.  Lawrence and Marilyn Keenan were employed by Canac Kitchens beginning in 1976 and 1983 respectively.  In 1987, both were advised that their employment was coming to an end but that they could carry on as independent contractors.  An independent contractor agreement was signed by Marilyn and the Keenans carried on as before.  They continued working for Canac until the company closed its operations in 2009.  No notice of termination or pay in lieu of notice was provided.

While there were some factors in this case which suggested an independent contractor agreement, the lower court was particularly fixated on the fact that the Keenans worked exclusively for Canac until 2007.  Although they did some small amount of work for a competitor named Cartier between 2007 and 2009 due to a shortage of work at Canac, the judge accepted that Canac turned a blind eye to same.  In other words, for all intents and purposes the Keenans provided services only to Canac for almost the entire duration of the relationship.  Moreover, Canac had almost complete control of the work performed by the Keenans.

As a result, the Superior Court found that although the Keenans were contractors, they were in a dependent relationship to Canac and therefore entitled to notice of termination.  Due to the 32 and 25 years of service provided by Lawrence and Marilyn respectively (which resulted in an average length of service of 28.5 years between the two of them), the court found that a whopping 26 month notice period was reasonable.

Canac contended that the trial judge erred: (i) in finding that the Keenans were in an exclusive relationship with Canac; and (ii) in awarding 26 months of notice.  The Ontario Court of Appeal determined that while the Keenans performed some work for Cartier, the substantial majority of their work was for Canac.  More specifically, of the approximately 32 and 25 years of service which Lawrence and Marilyn gave to Canac, all but two were exclusively in the service of Canac.  The court further stated that the full history of the working relationship between the parties must be examined, and not just a snapshot at the time of termination.

In addition, the Court found that because of the age and length of service of the Keenans, the fact that for over a generation they were Canac’s public face to the outside world, and the fact that their income had come from Canac during the entirety of their working lives, an award in excess of 24 months was justified and the trial judge’s finding for a 26 month notice period was reasonable.

A copy of the Court of Appeal’s decision in Keenan v. Canac Kitchens may be found here:  http://www.ontariocourts.ca/decisions/2016/2016ONCA0079.htm.

The Final Word on Dependent Contractors

Terminating for Financial Reasons? Don’t Expect the Courts to Help You Out

Employers who undertake reductions in force due to financial difficulties should not count on employee notice periods being reduced as a result of the financial troubles.  This point was recently emphasized by the Ontario Court of Appeal in the decision of Michela v. St. Thomas of Villanova Catholic School.

Michela, Gomes and Carnovale were long-term teachers at St. Thomas of Villanova Catholic School, with 11, 13 and 8 years of service respectively.  All worked under a series of one-year contracts.  In May of 2013, the employer advised each of them in writing that they would not receive a contract renewal for the coming year because enrolment was expected to be lower.  Subsequently, in June of 2013 each of them was provided with a termination letter and advised that notice was not owed because they were employed pursuant to fixed-term contracts.

The claims were dealt with by summary judgment, and the motions judge determined that due to the succession of fixed-term contracts, the employees were really indefinite term employees and entitled to common law notice of termination.  However in determining that the reasonable notice period for each employee should be 6 months rather than the 12 months which was claimed, the judge made reference to the employer’s poor financial position.
In overturning the decision, the Court of Appeal made reference to the Bardal factors used to calculate reasonable notice at common law: the employee’s character of employment, length of service, age, and availability of similar employment having regard to experience, training and qualifications.  The Court found that the motions judge had mistakenly viewed “character of employment” through the lens of the employer rather than the employees, and stated that the financial position of the employer does not factor into the calculation of reasonable notice.  The court confirmed that while an employer’s financial position may be the reason for a termination without cause, the financial position of the employer does not justify a reduction in the notice period in bad times nor an increase when times are good.

For employers considering reductions in force during difficult times, it may be best to consider other options such as a temporary layoffs, ensuring that proper termination provisions are in place which provide only statutory minimums in the event of termination, or the provision of working notice.  While legal advice should be sought in order to ensure the best plan of action, it is clear at the very least that employers should not count on a reduced notice period due to a difficult financial position.

The decision in Michela v. St. Thomas of Villanova Catholic School can be read here:  http://www.ontariocourts.ca/decisions/2015/2015ONCA0801.htm.

Terminating for Financial Reasons? Don’t Expect the Courts to Help You Out

Medical Marijuana in the Workplace

With the recent expansion of legislation permitting the production, sale and use of marijuana for medical purposes, employers should begin to think about crafting a policy which addresses medical marijuana use in their workplace.

For example, the smoking of regular cigarettes is not permitted in buildings or near entrances and exists to buildings.  Employees who want a smoke usually need to head further afield during their breaks.  But is it proper to ask the same of employees who are smoking medical marijuana and may have a disability?  Is it proper to make them smoke in the presence of others, so that their disability is no longer a private matter?  Is it proper to have regular smokers ingesting medical marijuana smoke if all smokers are required to smoke in the same area?
These are but some of the questions which an employer should be considering  when drafting a policy to address the use of medical marijuana in the workplace.  Other questions to be considered include the following:

  • Should a designated room be provided on the premises in which medical marijuana users can smoke on a private and confidential basis?
  • What rules will apply to the employee?  Should he or she be required to cease working and report to a manager in the event of feeling unwell after medicating?  Should he or she be required to refrain from operating a motor vehicle or machinery for work purposes after medicating?
  • What documentation will be required from the employee’s treating healthcare professional?
  • What steps will be taken by the employer in order to ensure that the needs of the employee are being met, without compromising the employee’s ability to perform his or her job, or the safety of the workplace?
  • Who at the company must know about and approve an employee’s use of medical marijuana in the workplace?  What steps will be taken in order to otherwise keep that information confidential?

There are no guidelines in place to assist employers with drafting policies such as this, although reference to policies which provide for accommodations to disabled employees may be a good starting point.  The important thing for an employer is to be aware of the fact that it is best to have a policy in place in advance of these questions being raised by an employee seeking to medicate at work, and that we can assist with ensuring that your workplace policy strikes the proper legal balance with respect to meeting the needs of all potentially affected individuals.

Medical Marijuana in the Workplace

What If Your Independent Contractor Is Really a Dependent Contractor?

Many employers hire independent contractors to assist in their workplace and in most cases, the assumption is that doing so will result in minimal or no notice of termination having to be paid at the end of the relationship.  A recent case has confirmed that that assumption can be a risky one to make.

Earlier this year, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice released its decision in the case of Keenan v. Canac Kitchens.  For those familiar with employment law in Ontario, the name Canac Kitchens will be familiar as it has been on the losing end of a number of employment law cases.

In this particular case, Lawrence and Marilyn Keenan were employed by Canac Kitchens beginning in 1976 and 1983 respectively.  In 1987, both were advised that their employment was coming to an end but that they could carry on as independent contractors.  Independent contractor agreements were signed and the Keenans carried on as before.  They continued working for Canac until the company closed its operations in 2009.  No notice of termination or pay in lieu of notice was provided.

The court looked back at the 2009 Ontario Court of Appeal decision in McKee v. Reid’s Heritage Home Limited and confirmed that employment relationships exist on a continuum, with employees at one end, independent contractors at the other, and dependent contractors in the middle.  The court also confirmed that unlike independent contractors, dependent contractors are entitled to reasonable notice of termination.  In determining the status of the Keenans, the court looked to the following:

  • Whether the individuals were limited exclusively to the service of the company;
  • Whether the individuals were subject to the control of the company, not only as to the product sold, but when, where and how it was sold;
  • Whether the individuals had an investment in the “tools” relating to their service;
  • Whether the individuals undertook any risk in relation to their business, or had an expectation of profit apart from a fixed fee or commission; and
  • Whether the business was that of the individual or the company.

While there were some factors in this case which suggested an independent contractor agreement, the court was particularly fixated on the fact that the Keenans worked exclusively for Canac until 2007.  Although they did some small amount of work for a competitor between 2007 and 2009 due to a shortage of work at Canac, the judge accepted that Canac turned a blind eye to same.  In other words, for all intents and purposes the Keenans provided services only to Canac for almost the entire duration of the relationship.  Moreover, Canac had almost complete control of the work performed by the Keenans.

As a result, the court found that although the Keenans were contractors, they were in a dependent relationship to Canac and therefore entitled to notice of termination.  Due to the 32 and 25 years of service provided by Lawrence and Marilyn respectively (which resulted in an average length of service of 28.5 years between the two of them), the court found that a whopping 26 month notice period was reasonable.

As always, independent contractor agreements should be entered into with careful consideration as to the true nature of the relationship between the parties.  As the saying goes, “if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, the chances are good that it’s a duck”.  In such a case, no amount of contractual drafting will lead to another conclusion.

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What If Your Independent Contractor Is Really a Dependent Contractor?

Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review

In May, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour commenced what is being called the “Changing Workplaces Review”.  The review is intended to take a close look at the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (“ESA”) and the Labour Relations Act, 1995 (“LRA”), with the special advisors making recommendations to the Ontario government.  The review has been ordered both to address the significant period of time which has passed since both statutes were enacted, and the changes that have occurred in the workplace and society since then.   The special advisors appointed to conduct the review and issue recommendations are Michael Mitchell, a former Toronto partner from employee-side law firm Sack Goldblatt Mitchell, and the Honourable John Murray, a former judge and former a management-side lawyer.

It is anticipated that the advisors’ report to the government will touch on such things as: (a) the increase in non-standard working relationships (eg. involuntary part-time work, temporary jobs, and self-employment); (b) greater workplace diversity; (c) technological change; and (d) minimum standards under the ESA and LRA.  More specifically, and with reference to the questions posed in the government’s Guide to Consultations, it can be expected that the advisors may look at things like: (i) whether there should be more or less (or different) overtime exemptions for different groups of employees; (ii) whether additional types of leaves of absence are recommended; and (iii) whether the notice of termination provisions currently set out under the ESA are sufficient.

Public consultations are being held across the province from June through September, and written submissions can also be provided to the advisors by email, fax or regular mail prior to September 18th.  For further details on the dates and locations of public consultations, as well as where to direct written submissions, please click here.

 

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Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review

Another Ontario Termination Clause Decision in Favour of Employees…

The Ontario Divisional Court recently affirmed the lower court’s decision in the case of Miller v. A.B.M., an important case with respect to the interpretation of termination provisions in employment contracts. Regular readers of this blog may recall our earlier blog discussion about the lower court’s decision.

In Miller, the employee signed an employment agreement with the following termination clause: “Regular employees may be terminated at any time without cause upon being given the minimum period of notice prescribed by applicable legislation, or by being paid salary in lieu of such notice or as may otherwise be required by applicable legislation.” The termination provision did not expressly state that benefits would be continued during the statutory notice period under the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (the “ESA”). As a result, the court found that the termination provision contravened the ESA. In upholding the lower court’s decision that the termination provision was void and common law notice should instead be substituted, the Divisional Court made the following findings.

First, the court stated that the employment agreement in question distinguished salary, pensions and car allowance under the heading of ‘remuneration’, but that the termination provision specifically just referenced salary. As a result, it was clear that just salary was to be provided on termination.

Second, the court found that the employment agreement’s silence on providing benefits during the notice period did not lead to a presumption that benefits would be provided. At best, the court found that there was an ambiguity in the agreement with respect to the question of whether benefits would be continued, and ambiguities should be interpreted against the drafter (in this case, the employer).

This case confirms the law set out in earlier decisions such as Wright v. Young and Rubicam Group of Companies and Stevens v. Sifton Properties Ltd. In short, in order to ensure that the termination provision in an employment agreement is not set aside, it must be carefully drafted and it must not appear to undercut the minimum provisions of the ESA. If the termination provision does not expressly state that benefits will continue during the ESA notice period, then the employer risks having the termination provision set aside.

For employers who have not had the termination provisions in their employment agreement templates reviewed recently, now would be a good time to ensure that they are in order and to consider updating them if they are not.

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Another Ontario Termination Clause Decision in Favour of Employees…

Required New ESA Poster for Ontario Workplaces

The Ontario Ministry of Labour has prepared and published a new Employment Standards Act, 2000 (“ESA”) poster entitled “Employment Standards in Ontario”. The poster is version 6.0 in a long line of ESA posters and Ontario employers were required to post it in the workplace effective as of May 1, 2015. The poster outlines for employees their rights under the ESA and the requirements of employers under the ESA.

The Ministry’s rules regarding the new ESA poster are as follows:

  • The poster must be in English but if the majority workplace language is other than English and if the Ministry has version 6.0 available in that language, then both posters must be posted side by side.
  • Version 5.0 should be removed at the time that version 6.0 is posted.
  • In addition to posting the poster in the workplace, employers are also required to give a copy of the poster to each employee by June 19, 2015.
  • New employees hired after May 20, 2015 must be given a copy of the poster within 30 days of hire.
  • The poster may be given to employees in hard copy form, as an email attachment, or as a link to an internet database (but then only if the employer ensures that the employee has reasonable access to the database, a computer and a printer).
  • The poster is available in English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Portuguese, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai and Urdu.

An English copy of the poster can be obtained at http://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pdf/poster.pdf and a French copy of the poster can be obtained at http://www.labour.gov.on.ca/french/es/pdf/poster.pdf. For copies of the poster in other languages, please go to the following link: http://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pubs/poster.php.

 

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Required New ESA Poster for Ontario Workplaces

A Definitive Ruling on the Issue of Without Cause Terminations under the Canada Labour Code

Federally regulated employers take note.  The Federal Court of Appeal has recently confirmed that without cause dismissals are not automatically deemed to be “unjust” under the provisions of the Canada Labour Code (the “Code”).

For decades, adjudicators have been at odds with one another regarding the question of whether the Code permits dismissals on a without cause basis.  As a matter of background, the Code applies only to federally regulated employers such as banks, railways and telecoms.  After years of uncertainty in this area, the Federal Court of Appeal recently decided to end the discord and definitively determine the legal point.

In the case of Wilson v. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, Mr. Wilson was employed for 4.5 years before being terminated on a without cause basis and offered a common law package equal to about 6 months of pay.  Mr. Wilson chose not to sign a release in exchange for the offer and instead filed a complaint under the Code which alleged that he had been unjustly dismissed.

After both an adjudication and a Federal Court hearing, the matter proceeded to the Federal Court of Appeal, which found that a dismissal without cause is not automatically “unjust” under the Code and that adjudicators must examine the circumstances of each particular case in order to decide whether or not a dismissal is unjust.  In its analysis, the court determined that Part III of the Code (which contains exceptional remedies such as reinstatement of employment) is merely intended to offer employees more remedies than exist under the common law, but only if the dismissal is unjust.  The extra remedies granted under Part III do not, however, mean that all without cause dismissals under the Code are automatically unjust.

As a result, federally regulated employees who are terminated without cause must prove that they have been terminated unjustly if they want that conclusion to be drawn.  In practical terms, this means that where there is no finding of unjust dismissal, a federally regulated employee can be terminated without cause and simply provided with a notice or severance package.  In order to gain the benefit of Code remedies which do not exist under the common law, such as the right to reinstatement, the employee must go the extra step and establish that the without cause termination was “unjust”.

The decision in Wilson v. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited can be found here: http://decisions.fct-cf.gc.ca/fca-caf/decisions/en/item/100689/index.do.

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A Definitive Ruling on the Issue of Without Cause Terminations under the Canada Labour Code