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Termination For Cause: Another Case of “Employer Beware”

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A termination for good business reasons does not always equate to a termination for just cause.  In the recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court in Barton v. Rona Ontario Inc., Mr. Justice Lauwers stated that even if an employee’s serious misconduct was such that the employer concluded that it needed to dismiss him to make an example of him, the misconduct might not necessarily be sufficient to warrant a termination without notice.

The Facts:

Barton was employed by the defendant for over 10 years and at the time of termination he was an assistant store manager.  Under his watch, an order picker truck was used to lift a wheelchair-bound employee from the ground floor to a second floor training centre and back again, for computer training (due to the fact that the only training office in the store was on the second floor and not otherwise accessible to wheelchairs).  This incident was contrary to the defendant’s safety expectations as set out in the Employee Handbook, the Health and Safety National Manual and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.  While Barton indicated his discomfort with the planned incident to both the operator of the order picker truck and the disabled employee, he was aware that the disabled employee wanted to attend the training and he did nothing to stop the employees from proceeding with their plan.  The incident turned out to be even more dangerous than might otherwise have been the case, as the wheelchair was not secured to the skid during the descent to the ground floor, and as the area around the order picker truck was not secured and someone walked under it during the lift. Fortunately for all, nobody was hurt during the incident.

Several employees were disciplined due to their part in the incident, but Barton’s employment was terminated for cause due to the fact that he was held to a higher standard than the non-managerial employees.

The Decision:

Mr. Justice Lauwers referenced Mr. Justice Echlin’s statement that just cause is “the capital punishment of employment law”.  He also referenced the contextual approach set out in the leading case of McKinley v. B.C. Tel and stated that although Barton’s misconduct was serious, his performance appraisals were good, he had no disciplinary record and he did not give permission for the lift or descent (although neither did he stop them).  By applying the principle of proportionality set out in McKinley, he found that Barton’s actions were not sufficient to warrant a with-cause termination.  He found that while there may have been good business reasons for Rona to terminate Barton’s employment and make an example of him in order to ensure that this sort of incident did not happen again, those reasons were not sufficient to elevate the termination to one without notice.  As a result, Barton was awarded 10 months of damages due to wrongful dismissal.

Barton v. Rona Ontario Inc., http://canlii.ca/t/fs8n7

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