As courts have repeatedly indicated, termination for cause can be difficult to justify. As a result, protracted litigation can result where the employer seeks to justify a for-cause termination. However, in Cotter v. Point Grey Golf and Country Club, the British Columbia Supreme Court proceeded in abbreviated way. It recently allowed a for-cause termination matter to proceed by a very short summary trial, saving the employer thousands of dollars in legal fees. And the result was great too. The court confirmed that the employer had cause to terminate for cause.
The 16 year employee in this case worked as an accountant and controller for a local golf club. The Plaintiff was responsible for tracking and reporting on the Defendant Company's finances. The Plaintiff decided that the golf club had not properly dealt with a property tax assessment issue, even though the matter had been resolved and the BC Assessment office confirmed there were no outstanding liabilities. As a result, the Plaintiff refused to sign some management letters to the auditor.
The Plaintiff ignored two written warnings from his manager not to continue to discuss the matter with anyone without knowledge or consent of his manger or the Club's President. Instead the Plaintiff continued to contact various external parties.
The property tax assessment issue was reviewed multiple times by management, the Board of Directors, the Audit Committee and the external auditors. Each time it was determined that there were no outstanding liabilities.Yet the Plaintiff continued to refuse to sign the management letter to the auditor, resulting in increased costs to the golf club.
Ultimately, due to the Plaintiff's continued failure to follow management direction, the significant efforts taken to resolve the Plaintiff's concerns and his ongoing insubordinate behaviour, the Plaintiff's employment was terminated for cause.
Availability of Summary Trial
The trial in this case was originally set for 13 days. A further 10 days were added and a 23 day trial was set down for hearing. At a later case planning conference at the court, the Plaintiff agreed that the matter should proceed by way of summary trial - an abbreviated trial where most evidence goes in by affidavit instead of traditional witness testimony. The Plaintiff later changed his mind and tried to argue that the trial should not proceed on a summary trial basis.
Each party filed affidavits in evidence and examination for discovery transcripts.
The Trial Decision
The trial judge considered that this matter could proceed by way of summary trial, rather than a full conventional trial. Why?
- the matter was not complex and the case law in the area was settled;
- the documents "spoke for themselves" and removed many issues of credibility; and
- the issues the Plaintiff wished to testify to were irrelevant to the question of whether or not his employment had been terminated for cause.
The trial judge determined that the Plaintiff was wilfully disobedient, refused to take direction and ignored the repeated warnings given to him. His wilfully insubordinate behaviour and communication with outside parties in contravention of his manager's direction were incompatible with the employee-employer relationship. Therefore, his employment was justly terminated for cause. And the Plaintiff's claim was dismissed.
Take Away for Employers
This case continues to show the importance of maintaining clear written records of warnings and employee discipline. Where the written record provides sufficient evidence, there is the possibility of reducing litigation costs by proceeding on a summary trial basis. Since most provinces have summary trials available in their court rules, this applies across the country.