Terminated Employee who signed Release Still Entitled to Accumulated Sick Leave Benefits

Employers are often concerned about whether terminated employees can claim entitlement to accumulated sick leave credits. This case shows how important it is to scrutinize every word in termination agreements; unclear language can come back to haunt the employer.

The employee had been employed for 29 years with the County of Haldimand and its predecessor municipalities. He was presented with and accepted a severance package. He signed a Release and in essence retired.

The severance agreement was incorporated into the Release and allowed for a claim for “usual retiree benefits.” The employee relied on that language to claim payment of accumulated sick leave pursuant to a section of the employer’s Policy Manual which stated:

“An employee hired prior March 12, 1981 and who has a minimum of five (5) years of continuous service will be entitled to a payment equal to the value of one-half (.5) of the balance of the employee’s accumulated sick leave credits to a maximum of one hundred thirty (130) days pay at current salary, upon termination of employment for any reason.”

At trial, judgment was awarded to the plaintiff for payment of accumulated sick leave credits. The employer appealed and argued that the severance agreement did not specifically give entitlement to sick leave credits, and the Release barred the employee’s lawsuit.

The court decided that the only “retiree benefit” that the employee had was the payment of accumulated sick leave pursuant to the Policy Manual. As such, the severance agreement’s reference to “retiree benefits” must mean the accumulated sick leave credits.

The court also held that the Release did not bar the claim because the severance agreement was incorporated into the Release.

Lastly, the court rejected the employer’s argument that the two-year limitation period started when the employee signed the severance agreement. Instead, because sick leave credits are part of retiree benefits, the court decided that the limitation period should begin May 31, 2008, the day when he “retired”.

Daniel John Burgener v. Corporation of Haldimand County, 2012 ONSC 5230

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Simmy Yu in the writing of this article.

Adrian Miedema

About Adrian Miedema

Adrian is a partner in the Toronto Employment group of Dentons Canada LLP. He advises and represents public- and private-sector employers in employment, health and safety and human rights matters. He appears before employment tribunals and all levels of the Ontario courts on behalf of employers. He also advises employers on strategic and risk management considerations in employment policy and contracts.

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