In the case of St-Hilaire c. Nexxlink inc.1 the Court of Appeal of Québec analyzed the concept of “constructive dismissal” in the specific context of a business acquisition.
In this case, Nexxlink was the subject of an acquisition that resulted in a series of changes to the business, some of which affected the employment conditions of Mr. St-Hilaire. Believing that this had resulted in substantial changes to the essential conditions of his employment contract, Mr. St-Hilaire left his employment shortly after the transaction, alleging that he had been constructively dismissed. He claimed $525,000 in damages from Nexxlink.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the decision of the Superior Court, holding that Mr. St-Hilaire had not been constructively dismissed.
According to the criteria laid down by the Supreme Court of Canada, constructive dismissal involves [translation] “1) a unilateral decision by the employer, 2) a substantial change or changes to the essential terms of the employment contract, 3) the employee’s refusal of the changes, and 4) the employee’s departure.”2 These criteria are assessed from the perspective of a reasonable person placed in the same situation.3
In the context of the transaction in this case, the change in the title of Mr. St-Hilaire’s position from vice-president, business development to vice-president, infrastructure equipment sales did not amount to a substantial change in his employment conditions nor a demotion, but rather a change in the organization of the business, which was within the management rights of Nexxlink.
With respect to the changes alleged by Mr. St-Hilaire to his responsibilities and target market, these were only fears. In the context of a business acquisition, some of the senior executives’ duties may be changed or clarifi ed over time: [translation] “a period of uncertainty or adjustment is entirely foreseeable”. According to the Court, a reasonable person placed in the same context as Mr. St-Hilaire could have foreseen that he would have retained his client accounts, and that various opportunities could be expected within the new business.
With regard to Mr. St-Hilaire’s compensation, it consisted primarily of a base salary of $170,000, a $40,000 bonus plan, and 20,000 stock options at the time he started his employment.
Contrary to Mr. St-Hilaire’s allegations, the Court found that the criteria for awarding the annual bonus had not been substantially changed. Moreover, even if this had been the case, his employment contract expressly stated that the bonus plan could be changed simply upon the approval of the board of directors. As for the cancellation of the stock options, even if this could be considered to be a reduction in Mr. St-Hilaire’s compensation, he never complained about it before leaving the company. According to the Court, Mr. St-Hilaire undoubtedly did not feel that this was an essential condition.
In conclusion, the Court of Appeal found that Mr. St-Hilaire was aware of the role that was reserved for him in the new business. The structure he complained of was temporary and uncertain. In the context of this transaction, the allegations of constructive dismissal were ill founded.
The interest of this decision lies in the fact that it relativizes the concept of constructive dismissal in the specific context of a business acquisition, in addition to reiterating the principle that the structure of a business is not bound to remain static.