In the Ontario Divisional Court decision of Simpson v Global Warranty, the issue was the application of a specific termination clause in an employment contract where the employer violated the contract in the course of the termination.
The employer had laid the employee off, and had only paid out his termination entitlements several months later, when the layoff became permanent. When the employee sued for additional amounts, the employer alleged just cause.
At trial, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice had determined that the employee had been constructively dismissed when he was laid off, and that the employee had not been terminated for just cause. On appeal, neither of these conclusions was in dispute. The only issue on appeal was the quantum of severance, and in particular whether the employer could rely on the termination provision in light of its alleged breaches of the contract, such that the employee was entitled to a longer common law reasonable notice period.
The employee argued that a termination provision in an employment agreement should not apply where (1) the employee had been constructively dismissed; or (2) the employer had unsuccessfully alleged just cause for dismissal. The employee argued that in both cases, the employer had breached the contract, and therefore could not claim the benefit of the termination clause.
The relevant clause of the employee’s contract stated:
[U]nless an employee is terminated for cause, an employee’s employment may be terminated at the sole discretion of the Employer and for any reason whatsoever upon providing the employee with one (1) weeks [sic] notice or pay in lieu thereof, subject to any additional notice, pay in lieu thereof or severance that may be required to meet the minimum requirements of the Employment Standards Act…
As the employer had refused to accept that the employee’s employment had been terminated when he had been laid off and consequently delayed payment, the employee was delayed in (a) receiving severance; and (b) his efforts to secure future employment (because he believed he might be recalled).
The Divisional Court found that the fact that the employer was in breach of the contract by not immediately paying the amount owed was not a breach “of an order of magnitude…as to disentitle the [employer] from the benefit of the termination provision”.
The employee also argued that because the employer labelled the termination as a “lay off”, the employer could not rely on the clause, which only referenced “termination”. This argument was rejected because the clause addressed the events that transpired: termination without cause, which included constructive dismissal.
In dealing with the argument that the allegation of cause rendered the employer unable to rely on the termination provision, the Divisional Court distinguished the facts before it from those cases where an employer knowingly wrongfully terminates a contract for cause, which would repudiate the contract. In Simpson the Divisional Court acknowledged that the termination was initially effected not for cause and the termination amounts were paid out; consequently there was no repudiation. As such, the failed defence simply resulted in a finding that the employee was terminated without cause, the situation directly addressed in the termination clause.
This case identifies several potential pitfalls when it comes to the application of employment contracts, and in particular highlights the need for employers to carefully and correctly apply termination provisions at the time of termination. While the employer here was ultimately successful, the case is a useful reminder of just how important it is to cross the “t’s” and dot the “i’s” when proceeding with a termination, to avoid disputes that could lead to costly litigation.