In Betts v. IBM Canada Ltd., the Court was faced with a dispute between Mr. Betts, who claimed he was legitimately absent from his employment due to illness, and his employer IBM, which claimed that Mr. Betts effectively resigned by not returning to work after his application for short-term disability (“STD”) benefits was declined.

Mr. Betts had been employed with IBM for approximately 15 years, most recently in New Brunswick.  During his employment, he had had absences in the past for depression and anxiety, for which he had received STD benefits from IBM.

In October 2013, Mr. Betts stopped reporting for work, claiming he was disabled due to illness, being a further incident of depression and anxiety.  Shortly thereafter, without informing IBM, he moved to Ontario to live with his girlfriend.  His move contravened IBM’s STD policy, which required approval of the third party STD adjudicator before a move away from the employee’s usual place of residence during illness.

Mr. Betts failed to submit medical information by the deadline as stated in the Plan.  Ultimately, Mr. Betts submitted notes from a psychotherapist located in Mississauga, but again this contravened the terms of the Plan, which required that medical information be submitted from a registered physician (which the psychotherapist was not).  As a result, Mr. Betts’ claim for STD was declined, and on December 2, 2013, IBM wrote to Mr. Betts, advising him that he would have to either return to work or submit medical documentation to substantiate his appeal.

This pattern continued, with Mr. Betts submitting several appeals with further documentation from his psychotherapist, but without submitting documents from a registered physician.  Each time, IBM wrote to Mr. Betts to advise him that if he failed to submit the necessary medical documentation to support an appeal, he would have to either return to work or be considered to have voluntarily resigned.

IBM even extended the time for appealing, and after Mr. Betts complained that his manager was harassing him, assigned him a new manager.  Still Mr. Betts did not provide a note from a physician, and failed to return to work, despite IBM’s warnings that failure to do so would result in his deemed resignation.  Ultimately, Mr. Betts exhausted all levels of appeals, but refused to return to work, claiming that the note from the psychotherapist justified his continued absence.  IBM proceeded to end his employment, claiming abandonment.

The Court first cited the recognized test for determining resignation/abandonment, as follows:

Do the statements or actions of the employee, viewed objectively by a reasonable person, clearly and unequivocally indicate an intention to no longer be bound by the employment contract.

In cases of claimed abandonment, this is often an extremely difficult hurdle for an employer to meet.

Although the Court accepted that Mr. Betts suffered from depression and anxiety disorders, the Court also recognized that an employee suffering from medical issues is “not immune from being found to have abandoned his/her employment”.  The Court ultimately held that Mr. Betts was well aware of what was required of him, and that IBM made clear that the consequences of non-compliance would be loss of employment.  As such, notwithstanding that Mr. Betts argued that he did not intend to give up his employment, the Court held that the facts demonstrated that Mr. Betts had no real intention to return to work.  Mr. Betts’ undisclosed move to Ontario clearly factored into the Court’s analysis.

The Court specifically rejected the argument that IBM was under an independent duty to accommodate Mr. Betts over and above the terms of the Plan, and held that IBM was under no obligation to provide Mr. Betts with a leave of absence while it independently assessed Mr. Betts’ claim by retaining an independent physician to assess him.  Since Mr. Betts had not produced a note from a doctor as required by the terms of the Plan, IBM had no obligation to undertake such steps.

Since IBM’s expectations were clear and reasonable and IBM provided ample time and opportunity for Mr. Betts to comply, coupled with Mr. Betts’ failure to provide a reasonable explanation for failing to comply, the Court held that Mr. Betts had in fact abandoned his employment.

This case is a good example of how to proceed with an uncooperative employee.  At every turn, IBM was clear in its expectations, patient (and even generous) when dealing with time lines and “bent over backwards” to assist Mr. Betts.  IBM only proceeded with ending the employment relationship after its clear instructions were ignored, it provided Mr. Betts with ample warnings of the consequences of failing to comply, and it responded to his concerns about the workplace.  For employers dealing with such employees, this case is a good road map for successfully managing the relationship.

Betts v. IBM Canada Ltd., 2015 ONSC 5298