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Hot topics and recent developments in labour and employment law

Date and time: November 26, 2019

12 p.m. – 1 p.m. ET
10 a.m. – 11 a.m. MT
9 a.m. – 10 a.m. PT

This session is only available via webinar

LSBC: This session is registered for 1 hour of CPD credit with the Law Society of British Columbia.

LSO: This program is eligible for up to 1 Substantive Hour with the Law Society of Ontario.

Join us for a complimentary 1-hour webinar where we will highlight the changes you need to know about and identify the trends that we expect to affect your workplace in 2019.
Topics will include:

  • Managing Harassment Investigations under the OHSA: Requirements and Pitfalls
  • A Case Law Update on Sexual Harassment
  • Creating Enforceable Contracts: Consideration in the Employment Context

Please confirm your attendance by Thursday, November 21.

Speakers

Questions

Please contact Carla Vasquez, Events Manager, at carla.vasquez@dentons.com or +1 416 361 2377.

Register now

Hot topics and recent developments in labour and employment law

Court finds termination clause purporting to limit a 17-year employee’s termination notice to the 8 week statutory minimum to be “clear, express and unambiguous”

An Alberta court recently had the opportunity to consider the question of whether a termination clause was effective to take away an employee’s entitlement to pay in lieu of notice of termination in excess of the minimum set out in the Alberta Employment Standards Code (“Code”). The Plaintiff in this case was a 17 year employee who was terminated without cause. The employer paid her the equivalent of 8 weeks salary, relying on a termination clause in the employment agreement which purported to limit her termination notice to the amount required under the Code. Given her length of service, the employee was entitled to the maximum of 8 weeks.

The Plaintiff sued for wrongful dismissal and applied for summary judgment. The sole issue for the summary judgment application was whether the termination clause barred the Plaintiff’s claim for damages beyond the 8 weeks. The clause in question stated:

In the event that [the employer] terminates your employment without cause, [the employer] will provide the notice or pay in lieu of notice required by the Alberta Employments Standard [sic] Code or other applicable legislation. You are not entitled to any other termination notice, pay in lieu of notice, or other benefits.

The Court considered the termination clause to be “clear, express and unambiguous” and stated that it was “difficult to think of wording that might make the employer’s intention any clearer”. The Court therefore dismissed the Plaintiff’s application, finding that the employer’s defence that the claim was barred by the termination clause had merit, and accordingly the matter should proceed to trial, absent an application by the employer for summary dismissal.

This decision provides helpful guidance to employers, although it is important to note that there is also a significant body of case law invalidating termination provisions. As recognized by the Court in this case, in order for an agreement to exclude an employee’s common law notice, it must be clear and unambiguous. Because section 3 of the Code preserves an employee’s common law rights, merely referring to the notice required under the Code has, in other cases, not been considered sufficient to limit an employee to the minimum notice requirements under the Code. Absent a reference to the specific termination notice sections of the Code (sections 56 and 57) or wording such as “the minimum requirements under the Code”, some decisions have found that similarly-worded termination clauses did not take away the employee’s common law right to reasonable notice, although each case needs to be decided on its individual facts.

This case emphasizes the importance of careful drafting of termination provisions, and shows that if done correctly, an employer can significantly reduce its liability on a termination without cause.

Stangenberg v Bellamy Software, 2016 ABQB 160

http://www.canlii.org/en/ab/abqb/doc/2016/2016abqb160/2016abqb160.pdf

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Court finds termination clause purporting to limit a 17-year employee’s termination notice to the 8 week statutory minimum to be “clear, express and unambiguous”

Latest from the Supreme Court of Canada on restrictive covenants in the commercial context

On September 12, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada issued its decision in Payette v. Guay Inc. Although this decision originated in the Quebec courts and involved the application of the Civil Code of Quebec, the Court’s decision also dealt with common law principles and so this case is applicable throughout the common law provinces.

This decision is noteworthy for anyone dealing with restrictive covenants in the context of the sale of a business and is welcome news for businesses seeking to endorse restrictive covenants in order to protect their interests.

The key points made by the Court are as follows:

  • The rules applicable to restrictive covenants relating to employment will differ depending on whether those covenants are linked to a contract for the sale of a business or to a contract of employment. This reflects the imbalance of power that generally characterizes the employer-employee relationship. No imbalance of power is presumed to exist in the vendor-purchaser relationship and so these rules will not have an equivalent in the commercial context.
  • The common law rules for restrictive covenants relating to employment do not apply with the same rigour or intensity where those obligations are assumed in the context of a commercial contract, particularly where the parties negotiated on equal terms, were advised by competent professionals and the contract did not create an imbalance between them.
  • In order to determine whether a restrictive covenant is linked to a contract for the sale of assets or to a contract of employment, it is important to clearly identify the reason why the covenant was entered into. The goal of the analysis is to identify the nature of the principal obligations under the master agreement and determine why and for what purpose the accessory obligations of non-competition and non-solicitation were assumed.
  • A restrictive covenant in the commercial context is lawful unless it can be established on a balance of probabilities that its scope is unreasonable. Thus the burden of proof will be on the vendor to prove that the restrictive covenant is unreasonable.
  • An acknowledgement by the parties subject to the restrictive covenant that the covenant is reasonable is not determinative, but it is a relevant factor and indicator that the Court will consider when determining whether the covenant is reasonable.
  • In the commercial context, a non-competition covenant will be found to be reasonable and lawful provided that it is limited, as to its term, territory and applicable activities, to whatever is necessary for the protection of the legitimate interests of the party in whose favour it was granted. The factors that may be considered include the sale price, the nature of the business’ activities, the parties’ experience and expertise, and the fact that the parties had access to the services of legal counsel and other professionals.
  • While in the case of a non-competition covenant, the applicable territory must be identified, a non-solicitation covenant may be considered reasonable and lawful absent a territorial limitation. In the modern economy, with new technologies and customers who are no longer geographically limited, territorial limitations in non-solicitation clauses have generally become obsolete.

Ultimately, on the facts before it, the Court found that the 5 year non-competition covenant with an expansive territory and 5 year non-solicitation clause were reasonable given the highly specialized and mobile nature of the purchaser’s business activities (crane rentals).

Latest from the Supreme Court of Canada on restrictive covenants in the commercial context