After Edward Robinson insisted he would quit, his boss, James Campbell, moved swiftly to accept his resignation – too swiftly, as it turns out.

Robinson had spent more than half his working life with Alberta-based Team Cooperheat-MQS Canada Inc. and looked forward to working to age 65 and beyond. Robinson felt secure in his job and he had never received warnings. That all changed when he was summoned to a meeting with Campbell, human resources, and other members of management, and was accused of yelling at and speaking rudely to a female employee and others. Two of his staff were then invited to join the meeting to add their views to the melee. One openly characterized him as being “a bully.”

Taken aback by this unexpected barrage, Robinson stated if the accusations were not withdrawn, he would be forced to resign.

Returning to work the following day, Robinson met with Campbell and sought to retract his resignation. But Campbell refused to let him do so. Instead, Robinson was told that although his last day of employment would be formally several weeks later, he was no longer required to show up at work. Arrangements were made to transition his duties to other members of the staff who were informed Robinson had resigned. Robinson sued for wrongful dismissal, taking strong exception to this interpretation of his intentions.

Justice Donald Lee of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, rejected the company’s defence that Robinson had resigned and was, therefore, not entitled to wrongful dismissal damages. He found Robinson’s statements did not express a clear and unequivocal intention to resign. At best, he had referred to a potential decision in the future. His emotional response was understandable given that he was thrust into a meeting in which unanticipated and disturbing allegations were raised, Justice Lee said.

Even if Robinson had exclaimed he quit, the court added, such an utterance does not necessarily constitute a valid resignation, and such a resignation can always be withdrawn in the cooler light of emotional recovery. In light of Robinson’s expressed interest in working past age 65 and his long service, a reasonable employer would not have concluded he had quit. It was Campbell, not Robinson, who ultimately decided that Robinson could no longer work.

Determining Robinson was wrongfully dismissed, the judge awarded him one year’s salary and costs. Had Robinson more actively sought alternate employment, his damages would have been even greater. Although the employer was spared a further award of bad faith damages, this case is instructive on the delicate approach to be taken when an employee resigns. Consideration should be given to the following:

  • Has the employee unambiguously expressed an intention to resign?
  • Was the employee under duress at the time of the expression?
  • Was the resignation put into writing or was it a spontaneous verbal expression?
  • Did the employee retract the resignation before it was accepted?
  • Are there any specific circumstances (such as depression or acute personal circumstances) which suggest that the employee is not acting freely?
  • Was the resignation accompanied by any behaviour that supports the desire of the employee to voluntarily leave, such as removal of personal effects and return of company property?
  • If the employee attempts to resile from the resignation, has the employer already acted in reliance upon it?