5 Steps to Follow After Being Fired

Being fired is a terrible emotional blow and it can often be very difficult to move on. So much of who we are as individuals arises from the jobs we hold; so much of how we define ourselves is based on “what we do” for a living.  It is not surprising that getting fired is often described as one of life’s most stressful and devastating events.

Because it is quite easy to become overwhelmed, I wanted to share my advice on how to best respond to getting fired and moving on in a positive and rewarding manner. Read more

Entitlements to Unvested Stock Options After Termination

Where stock options or restricted share units (RSUs) form a large part of an employee’s compensation, the question of whether that compensation should continue over the reasonable notice period becomes increasingly important. This article aims to answer that question by explaining the key factors the Ontario Courts consider in interpreting stock option plans and deciding whether a wrongfully dismissed employee should be compensated for those lost Unvested Stock Options.

Many employers draft stock options plans with the intention of excluding terminated employees from unvested stock options. However, the starting position, under the law in Ontario, is that dismissed employees are entitled to all the wages, benefits and other forms of compensation he or she would have received had they been working through their reasonable notice period.

Limiting Entitlement to Stock Options and RSUs during the Notice Period

Similar to how companies may limit the length of reasonable notice, or the entitlement to bonuses, during the notice period, employers can, with properly drafted policies, limit an employees entitlements to stock options or RSUs during the termination notice period.

15 years ago, it used to be a lot easier for employers to limit employees’ entitlements to stock options over the notice period. For example, in a 2004 decision of Kieran v. Ingram Micro Inc., the Court denied an employee’s claim for stock option entitlements during the notice period because the employment agreement restricted these entitlements upon termination “for any reason”. The Court concluded this language sufficiently incorporated the employee’s without cause termination.

However, more recently, since at least the Courts decision of Paquette v TeraGo, the law in Ontario holds that employees are entitled to payments unless the language limiting the employee’s rights on termination expressly excluded payment of bonuses upon an employee’s termination without cause. Specifically, in that case, the Court determined that a term that required “active employment” when the bonus is paid, without more, was insufficient to deprive an employee of a claim for compensation for the bonus he or she would have received during the notice period. While this case dealt with bonuses, not stock options, the principles are the same for both.

Read my earlier article for more information on Entitlements to Bonuses after Termination.

Stock option limitations must be clear and unambiguous.

In a recent case, O’Reilly v Imax Corporation, the Court of Appeal for Ontario confirmed that the employer is obliged to pay, among other things, damages to the employee for the loss of unvested stock options unless there is express language in an employment contract or stock option plan or similar document, limiting an employee’s right to compensation for other forms of compensation such as Restricted Share Units, Stock Options during the reasonable notice period.

Whether such “express language in an employment contract or stock option plan” exists is often subject to serious scrutiny in the Courts. Entitlements to stock options at termination but only if the language is clear and unambiguous. The enforceability of these agreements depends on the particular circumstances of each case.

Stock option limitations must be drawn to the attention of the employee.

Battiston v. Microsoft Canada Inc highlights that having a well-drafted and legally compliant contractual provision may not be sufficient. In this case, the employee was awarded damages for the stock options that were scheduled to vest during the notice period because the employer failed to bring the limitations in the stock option plan after termination to the employee’s attention at the time he accepted the terms and conditions of the stock awards.

The Court considered the termination provisions in the Stock Award Agreements as “harsh and oppressive” since they barred Mr. Battiston’s right to have unvested stock awards vest if he had been terminated without cause. As a result, the court ruled “reasonable measures must be taken to draw harsh and oppressive terms to the attention of the employee.”

So, in addition to clear and unambiguous language in agreement terms, the Courts hold that any harsh or negatively restrictive conditions contained within those documents must be explicitly communicated to the employee.

Conclusions

In summary, Canadian courts have made it clear that unless companies are extremely careful in the wording of stock option plans, these plans will be interpreted to allow employees dismissed without cause to accumulate and exercise their stock options until the end of the reasonable notice period. To avoid this outcome employers must make sure to use wording in the stock option plan that limits an employee’s right to exercise options after a certain point in time. In situations where careful and clear wording does not exist or where such limitations are not brought to the employee’s attention, Courts will interpret stock option plans against the employer and the trigger date for the termination of the options will not commence until the end of the reasonable notice period.


Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.

All Ontario Employers Need New Employment Contracts: Court of Appeal

Due to a very disruptive decision released by the Ontario Court of Appeal last week in Waksdale v Swegon North America Inc., 2020 ONCA 391, your employment contract is probably no longer enforceable.

Waksdale v Swegon North America Inc.

Waksdale v Swegon North America Inc. was a wrongful dismissal action by employee Benjamin Waksdale against his former employer Swegon North America Inc. Mr. Waksdale was terminated without cause after working only 8 months. He sued for 6 months pay in lieu of reasonable notice.

The plaintiff’s employment contract had the following “Termination Without Cause” provision:

You agree that in the event that your employment is terminated without cause, you shall receive one week notice or pay in lieu of such notice in addition to the minimum notice or pay in lieu of such notice and statutory severance pay as may be required under the Employment Standards Act 2000 as amended. All reimbursement for business expenses shall cease as of the date of termination of your employment, however, you shall be reimbursed for legitimate business expenses that have been incurred and submitted to the Company but not as yet paid you to that date. The terms of this section shall continue to apply notwithstanding any changes hereafter to the terms of your employment, including, but not limited to, your job title, duties and responsibilities, reporting structure, responsibilities, compensation or benefits.

The employment contract also had a “Termination for Cause” provision. It was conceded by the employer that the wording of this Termination for Cause provision breached the terms of the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (“ESA”) and was therefore void and unenforceable. In what is probably the most problematic portion of this decision, neither the Ontario Superior Court nor the Ontario Court of Appeal set out the wording of the Termination for Cause provision. Accordingly, we are all left to guess at what made it unenforceable.

At trial, the lawyer for Mr. Waksdale argued that the employment contract (or at the very least both of its termination provisions) was not enforceable because the Termination for Cause provision was void.

The Ontario Court of Appeal agreed and held as follows:

An employment agreement must be interpreted as a whole and not on a piecemeal basis. The correct analytical approach is to determine whether the termination provisions in an employment agreement read as a whole violate the ESA. Recognizing the power imbalance between employees and employers, as well as the remedial protections offered by the ESA, courts should focus on whether the employer has, in restricting an employee’s common law rights on termination, violated the employee’s ESA rights. While courts will permit an employer to enforce a rights-restricting contract, they will not enforce termination provisions that are in whole or in part illegal. In conducting this analysis, it is irrelevant whether the termination provisions are found in one place in the agreement or separated, or whether the provisions are by their terms otherwise linked.

What Makes a Termination for Cause Provision Void and Unenforceable?

As I have previously written about in my article “Termination of the Employment Relationship in Ontario”, where an employer has “just cause” for termination they can fire an employee without paying reasonable notice at common law (subject to the principles of Progressive Discipline).

Examples of “Just Cause” at common law include:

  • Repeated breaches of company policy
  • Repeated Truancy
  • Violence or Harassment
  • Dishonesty
  • Insubordination

When terminating for just cause, however, employers are still required to pay ESA Notice and Severance unless that employee “has been guilty of wilful misconduct, disobedience or wilful neglect of duty that is not trivial and has not been condoned by the employer”.

Unless your employment contract explicitly carves out a distinction between termination for Just Cause and termination for “wilful misconduct, disobedience or wilful neglect of duty that is not trivial and has not been condoned by the employer”, it may be void and unenforceable, as was found by the Court of Appeal in the Waksdale decision. As a result, your employment contract’s “Termination Without Cause” provision might also be found unenforceable.

Employment Contracts Post-Waksdale

The existence of the Waksdale decision is a serious liability for Ontario employers. Previously, little attention had been paid to the enforceability of the “Just Cause” provisions. From now on, that will no longer be the case. In my experience, very few employment contracts that come across my desk draw the distinction between Just Cause and “wilful misconduct, disobedience or wilful neglect of duty that is not trivial and has not been condoned by the employer”.

As a result, the majority of employment contracts in Ontario need to be amended and updated. Otherwise, employers risk their termination provisions being unenforceable, which means they will owe employees common law reasonable notice. Common law reasonable notice often works out to months or years of notice rather than weeks under the ESA.

Waksdale Raises More Questions

While the Ontario Court of Appeal has made up its mind on the effect of poorly drafted Without Cause provisions, the Waksdale decision raises other important questions concerning employment contract more generally: if other terms of an employment contract breach the ESA, what is the effect on the enforceability of the termination provisions? For example, what if your employment contract provides for less than the minimum vacation entitlements, does that invalidate your termination provision?

This is a problem because, in Waksdale, the Court of Appeal stated “the correct analytical approach is to determine whether the termination provisions in an employment agreement read as a whole violate the ESA”. The Court also explained that “an employment agreement must be interpreted as a whole and not on a piecemeal basis”.

Whatever the answer to that question is, there is no doubt that employees now have another arrow in their quiver when challenging employment contracts— and employers face yet another risk when terminating an employee.

Employers Need New Employment Contracts

In conclusion, employers need to update their employment contracts. Doing so is inexpensive and pays substantial dividends at termination time. As noted, the difference in notice period, for an employee with an enforceable termination provision versus one without, can be months or years of pay.

If you are interested in learning how to implement new or update employment contracts, read my article, How to Change Employment Contracts.


Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.

The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.

Punitive Damages in Employment Law

An employer is obligated to act fairly and in good faith towards their employees. If an employer treats an employee maliciously, or intentionally breaks the law, Courts can punish that employer by awarding the employee what is called “punitive damages”.

In this article we will set out some of the circumstances under which punitive damages are awarded, the kinds of behaviour that warrant punitive damages, and how the courts determine whether punitive damages are appropriate.

What are Punitive Damages?

The Supreme Court of Canada defines the characteristics of punitive damage as follows:

Punitive damages may be awarded in situations where the [employer’s] misconduct is so malicious, oppressive and high-handed that it offends the court’s sense of decency… It is the means by which the judge expresses outrage at the egregious conduct of the [employer].

When are Punitive Damages Awarded?

Punitive damages are rarely awarded and when they are, it is only after careful and cautious consideration by the Court. Factors that the Court considers are meant to test how serious and egregious the employer’s conduct was.

For example:

  • Was the employer’s misconduct planned and deliberate?
  • Did it occur over a long period of time?
  • Did the employer try to hide, lie about, or cover up the misconduct?
  • Was there some ulterior inappropriate motive behind the misconduct, such as intimidation, an intent to harm the employee, or to otherwise extract some unfair unjust advantage?

What kinds of bad behaviour warrant punitive damages?

While there is no strict all inclusive list of misconduct that leads to awards of punitive damages, Courts have awarded punitive damages in a number of cases, including, where:

  1. an Employer terminates for just cause based on knowingly false or unsupportable allegations;
  2. an Employee is treated in a demeaning and/or humiliating manner;
  3. an Employer demands that an employee resign before it will provide a reference letter;
  4. an Employer threatens, extorts or intimidates an employee;
  5. an Employer intentionally lies to or misleads an employee; or
  6. an Employer intentionally violates the Employment Standards Act, 2000: see Altman v. Steve’s Music, 2011 ONSC 1480 (CanLII).

The Legal Test for Punitive Damages in the Employment Law Context

The Ontario Court of Appeal in Boucher v. Wal-Mart Canada Corp., 2014 ONCA 419 (CanLII), summarizes the legal test that the Ontario Court follows in deciding to award punitive damages, as follows:

  1. The defendant’s conduct is reprehensible.
  2. The defendant committed an “actionable wrong” independent of the underlying claim for damages for breach of contract; and
  3. A punitive damages award, when added to any compensatory award, is rationally required to punish the defendant and meets the objectives of retribution, deterrence and denunciation.

There have been a number of court cases that have ruled on each of the above three factors. Let’s take a deeper review of some of the defining principles of law that have emerged.

1. Reprehensible Conduct

Reprehensible conduct has been explained in a couple of cases, as follows:

  • In Vorvis v. Insurance Corp. of British Columbia, [1989] 1 SCR 1085, the Supreme Court of Canada observed that conduct meriting punitive damages awards must be:

“harsh, vindictive, reprehensible and malicious”, as well as “extreme in its nature and such that by any reasonable standard it is deserving of full condemnation and punishment”.

… the impugned conduct must depart markedly from ordinary standards of decency—the exceptional case that can be described as malicious, oppressive or high-handed and that offends the court’s sense of decency

The test … limits [a punitive damages] award to misconduct that represents a marked departure from ordinary standards of decent behaviour. Because their objective is to punish the defendant rather than compensate a plaintiff (whose just compensation will already have been assessed), punitive damages straddle the frontier between civil law (compensation) and criminal law (punishment).

[P]unitive damages should be resorted to only in exceptional cases and with restraint.

2. Committed an Actionable Wrong

The law does not permit individuals to be punished simply because they do something that a Judge or the Court doesn’t like or approve of. The legal system isn’t there to punish unethical behaviour, only illegal behaviour. Therefore, punitive damages can only be awarded where the misconduct of the employer amounts to some wrong that could give rise to a lawsuit by itself.

In Royal Bank of Canada v. W. Got & Associates Electric Ltd. [1999] 3 SCR 408,  this Court confirmed that “the circumstances that would justify punitive damages for breach of contract in the absence of actions also constituting a tort are rare”. Rare they may be, but the clear message is that such cases do exist.  The Court has thus confirmed that punitive damages can be awarded in the absence of an accompanying tort.

Therefore, the requirement of an independent actionable wrong can be met by either an independent tort, a breach of fiduciary duty or a breach of a contractual duty such as the duty of good faith or fair dealing.

3. Rationally Required to Punish the Employer and Meets the Objectives of Retribution, Deterrence and Denunciation.

Ordinarily, a Court simply puts an employee back into the position they would have been in but for the conduct of the employer. This is called “compensatory” damages. Punitive damages are different. They are ordered on top of compensatory damages resulting in the employee getting more than he would normally be entitled to and is therefore actually in a better position as a result. Punitive damages are essentially legal recompense that a defendant found guilty of committing a wrong or offense is ordered to pay on top of compensatory damages. They are meant as punishment for behaviour that is considered abhorrent.

This principle is explained in Fidler v. Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada, [2006] SCR 3, “[W]hile compensatory damages are awarded primarily for the purpose of compensating a plaintiff for pecuniary and non-pecuniary losses suffered as a result of a defendant’s conduct, punitive damages are designed to address the purposes of retribution, deterrence and denunciation.”

For this reason, the Courts have to consider whether an employer has been properly punished and whether a punitive damage would help achieve this objective.

Punitive Damages Are Not Available In Human Rights Tribunal Decisions

The Human Rights Tribunal does not have jurisdiction to award punitive damages.


Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.

Constructive Dismissal: A Good Reason to Quit

What is Constructive Dismissal?

“Constructive Dismissal” is defined as a substantial and unilateral change to the terms or working conditions of employment. In other words, a constructive dismissal describes situations where, although an employer has not directly fired an employee, its actions or its failure to address issues, leaves an employee feeling like they have no choice but to resign. Another way to think about constructive dismissal is that it arises when an employee has a good reason to quit their job.

A relocation of the workplace from Toronto to India is a clear example of a substantial change. The determination becomes more nuanced and complex, however, in less obvious situations. For example:

  • Where an employee is moved from a salaried position to one based on commission; or
  • Where an employee is being transferred from a non-customer facing role to one that requires them to interact with customers regularly, although at the same rate of pay.

What makes a change “substantial”?

As you may have guessed from the definition of constructive dismissal, when deciding whether an employee has been constructively dismissed, the Courts have to decide whether the change in employment was “substantial”.

Determining what is a substantial or fundamental change to an employment agreement depends on facts and circumstances. The burden to prove that the facts and circumstances amount to a substantial change in employment is on the employee.

To provide guidance on the meaning of substantial in the context of a constructive dismissal, this article will look at the three situations in which constructive dismissal can occur:

  1. Where there is a change to some or all of the terms of employment (i.e. salary, hours of work, location, role, responsibility, etc.);
  2. Where the workplace becomes unsafe, hostile or toxic (i.e. a change in working conditions); and
  3. Where multiple small changes taken together become a substantial change.

Constructive dismissal due to substantial changes to the terms of employment.

In the eyes of the Court, employers are generally entitled to make minor unilateral amendments to employment terms when those changes are reasonable and/or contemplated as part of the employment agreement. The Courts do recognize that employers should be allowed some flexibility in structuring jobs as part of their authority in managing the business.

In deciding whether the change is substantial, the Courts apply an objective legal analysis. This means it doesn’t matter what the employee believes happened. The Court looks at the facts and circumstances and asks if a reasonable person in the employee’s shoes would find that the terms of employment had been significantly altered by the employer. They consider the nature and extent of the changes with specific attention and consideration to the intention of the parties at the time the employment contract was formed.

To prove constructive dismissal, the key is to be able to demonstrate that the change(s) were severe enough that a fundamental part of the agreement was altered.

Examples of Changes to Employment Terms

Some of the “substantial” changes taken by employers might look like:

  • a demotion;
  • a change to the employee’s reporting structure or job responsibilities;
  • a reduction to an employee’s compensation of more than 10%;
  • a change to an employee’s hours of work from day shift to a night shift; or
  • relocating the employee’s workplace resulting in a drastically increased or unreasonable commute.

Another example of a substantial change could be an unpaid suspension or layoff. As I discussed in more detail in Temporary Layoffs: What Everyone Needs to Know, employers are not allowed to layoff employees when it isn’t a written term of their contract or a standard industry practice. Accordingly, being laid off in almost every instance is a constructive dismissal.

Constructive dismissal due to unsafe, hostile or toxic work environment.

Employers are required to provide a safe and healthy work environment and that obligation is legally regulated through Ontario occupational health and safety legislation. An unsafe or unhealthy work environment may result in an employee being constructively terminated.

In cases of poor work environments, the Court will consider the facts and circumstance and apply an objective test. Is the workplace so unsafe, hostile or toxic that a reasonable person would not be expected to return? If the answer is yes, then the employee was constructively dismissed.

The following are some of the factors that will be considered to determine if constructive dismissal has occurred:

  • The serious wrongful behaviour is evident and its nature is such that it renders continued employment impossible;
  • The serious wrongful behaviour has been persistent or repeated;
  • The test applied is objective – that is, it is confirmed that someone in the employee’s shoes would consider the environment poisoned

Examples of unsafe, hostile, or toxic workplaces.

A good example of a toxic work environment is one in which the employer fails to prevent workplace harassment or bullying. Other examples include workplaces where unjustified criticism or vague and unfounded accusations of poor performance (especially by persons of authority) exist, a culture where sexism or racism is tolerated (if not actively encouraged), or where an employee is subject to extreme stress and unreasonable expectations or demands.

Multiple Small Changes Overtime May Constitute A Substantial Change to Employment

Although minor changes will not amount to constructive dismissal, a series of small changes might. The key is that the extent of the changes made to the terms of employment must add to a total change that is substantial or makes the employee feel that the employer is trying to have them quit.

For example, an employer might make a minor reduction in salary in January, then reduce employee benefits in March, then a small reduction in hours in April, perhaps then a restructuring to change an employees role to have less overall responsibility in July.. The total effect of those changes may add up to a substantial change to the terms of employment.

Employee’s Options In the Face of Substantial Unilateral Changes in Employment

An employee’s options in the face of a potential constructive dismissal are set out by the Ontario Court of Appeal in a case called Wronko v. Western Inventory Service Ltd. (which I’ve written about before in How to Change Employment Contracts). Those options are:

  1. Accept the change in the terms of employment, either expressly or implicitly through apparent agreement, in which case the employment will continue under the altered terms;
  2. Reject the change and sue for constructive dismissal if the employer persists in treating the employment relationship as being subject to the varied term; or
  3. Make it clear to the employer that they are rejecting the new term and insisting on the original terms of employment.

If an employee decides to continue to work under changed conditions, they may not be able to bring the matter to the courts at a later date. This legal principle is called condonation. If an employee condones the change through conduct, then they have implicitly accepted the change.

Risks on Employees

Usually, to claim constructive dismissal the employee actually has to quit and then sue. In this respect there is always a risk to the employee who makes a claim for constructive dismissal. If the employee is not able to prove that they have been constructively dismissed, then they will be found to have resigned from their employment. Having resigned, the employee will not be entitled to any damages for wrongful dismissal.


Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.

Termination within Probation Periods

Probation at the start of employment may seem simple, but they don’t always automatically allow employers to fire someone in their first 3 months free and clear. Probationary periods are actually legally intricate.

Employees terminated during probationary periods often accept their fate without seeking legal advice when in many cases they may be eligible for severance payments (even severance payments of several months or more). Likewise, employers may dismiss an employee within a probationary period only to be surprised and unprepared when they’re told termination pay for wrongful dismissal is owed.

Purpose and Effect of Probation Periods

The reason for probationary periods in employment contracts is to provide a safeguard to employers. It allows an employer a period of time to assess a new hire on their suitability for the role. This benefits employees to the extent that an employer may be more willing to take a chance on an employee they are not certain about, if they have a period of time to change their mind without consequence.

The Ontario Employment Standards Act (“ESA“) does not define probation or probationary period. Instead, it allows an employer to terminate an employee without cause in the first three months of employment, without notice or pay in lieu of notice. It frequently doesn’t matter, therefore, for the purposes of the Employment Standards Act whether an employment contract contains a probationary clause (although it is important that the probationary clause does not provide for less notice than the minimums required under the ESA). If an employee is employed less than 3 months, under the ESA, he or she gets no ESA notice. If an employee is employed 3 months or more they are entitled to ESA notice. The existence, or lack thereof, of a probationary clause doesn’t change this.

The true purpose of a probationary period in an employment contract is to rebut the common law rule that employees are entitled to reasonable notice.

It may come as a surprise to some that even if you’ve been employed for a single day (or even if you haven’t started yet), the Courts have declared that terminated employees are entitled to some form of notice or pay-in-lieu of notice. In fact, recent trends in case law, suggest that short term employees (people employed only a few months) may be entitled to even more notice. A properly drafted and enforceable probationary clause may rebut this presumption and disentitle employees on probation to notice.

Termination within Probation Periods

In order for an employee to be subject to a probationary clause it generally must be:

  1. expressed (in writing) – the courts will not imply the existence of a probation period;
  2. it must be neither vague or ambiguous; and
  3. it must not provide for less notice than the minimums set out in the ESA

Further, and most critically, in order for an employer to be relieved from paying reasonable notice to the terminated probationary employee, it must act in good faith. This means that it must have provided the employee with a fair opportunity to demonstrate their suitability for the role and acted fairly in determining that the employee was unsuitable for the role.

Suitability

Defining “suitability” can be challenging. The Courts recognise that assessments of probationary employees involve the consideration of factors that are intangible and subjective. As a result, they often extend wide discretion to employers. Overall, the grounds used to establish unsuitability must be reasonable and must demonstrate that employees are given a fair chance to meet the requirements of the job.

Example of factors that may be taken into consideration to determine suitability of a probationary employee are as follows:

  • Performance
  • Attitude and compatibility
  • Capability and skill
  • Capacity to meet future production requirements

Clear and Unambiguous

Courts pay strict attention to the wording and language of any probationary periods. They must be clear and unambiguous. The court will not likely imply a probationary clause from the contract term “employee performance will be reviewed after three months”. However, in at least one case, the Ontario Court of Appeal concluded that the clause “Probation… six months” was enforceable and that the word “probation” in that case had a clear and unambiguous meaning that the employer could rely on to limit the employee’s notice. See for example: Nagribianko v. Select Wine Merchants Ltd., 2017 ONCA 540 (CanLII)

Best Practices for Employers

Best practice is for an employer to take steps to document the specific actions taken to determine suitability or unsuitability. Employers should:

  • Communicate the expected reasonable standards;
  • Inform the employee of any deficiencies as they arise;
  • Explain that any failure to address and try to improve deficiencies will result in termination of employment at the end of the probation period; and
  • Provide the employee with a chance to show that they tried to improve.

The important thing for employers to do, is to honestly treat the probationary period as a time for evaluation and training. The employer should work with the employees on a regular basis to determine if they can be transitioned into the role successfully. Actions taken to carefully assess, advise and remedy performance issues should be evident. Any decision about dismissal should not be made at the last moment, give regular performance review so that a decision to terminate prior to the end of the probationary period isn’t a surprise to anyone.

If you are interested in learning how to update your employment contracts to include a probation period, take a look at my article “How to Change Employment Contracts” or feel free to contact me.

Tips for Employees

Anyone terminated from their employment, whether within a probationary period or otherwise, should seek legal advice. 


Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.

COVID-19’s Effect on Reasonable Notice of Termination

COVID-19 is having significant economic impacts on both employees and employers. Mass layoffs are happening across Canada despite government initiatives to avoid them. Many employers are considering staff cuts to remain profitable. While terminating employment for legitimate business reasons (such as a downturn in the economy) is lawful, generally speaking, an employee terminated in these circumstances is entitled to reasonable notice of termination, or pay in lieu of notice.

What is Reasonable Notice?

Courts require employers to give terminated employees “reasonable notice” or pay in lieu of notice upon termination.  Such notice is based on a variety of factors to assist the employee in finding comparable employment.

In doing so, the courts consider the following criteria:

  1. The character of employment. For example, general labourer, middle manager, executive, professional, technical worker, etc.
  2. The length of the employee’s service. Employees are generally entitled to a longer notice period the longer they have been employed.
  3. The employee’s age. Employees close to retirement are generally entitled to a longer notice period.
  4. The availability of comparable employment.

For more information in general see my earlier article “How much notice/severance should I get after being fired?“.

Reasonable Notice in a Poor Economy

The state of the economy can influence the availability of comparable employment and, in turn, can likewise affect the length of reasonable notice awarded by courts.

There are arguments on all sides as to how a general economic downturn should affect the reasonable notice period. Employees argue that it should be increased because they may have more difficulty finding new employment when jobs are scarce. Employers argue that they do not have the financial resources to provide employees with a longer notice period, and the pay and benefits that go with it.

Generally, courts in Ontario have favoured employees:

  • They have often sided with employees that an economic downturn should extend the notice period. For example, in Zoldowski v Strongco Corporation (“Zoldowski”), the Court increased the notice period in part because of the “economic climate of Southern Ontario and particularly the GTA”, and its impact on the employee’s ability to find alternative employment.
  • They have rejected the idea that a specific employer’s economic difficulties are a basis for reducing the reasonable notice period. In Michela v. St. Thomas of Villanova Catholic School (“Michela”), the Court of Appeal rejected this argument, reasoning that the “character of employment” factor was about the nature of the employee’s position, not the employer’s finances. While those finances may be the reason for the termination, “they justify neither a reduction in the notice period in bad times nor an increase when times are good.”

Nevertheless, COVID-19 may have a Different Affect on Reasonable Notice

Despite its decision in Michela, the Court of Appeal left open the possibility that a more general economic crisis may limit the reasonable notice period by approving and referencing the following passage in a 1982 High Court decision, Bohemier v. Storwal International Inc. (“Bohemier”):

It seems to me that when employment is unavailable due to general economic conditions, there has to be some limit on the period of notice to be given to discharged employees even if they are unable to secure similar employment within the notice period.

The reasoning in Bohemier suggests that, where there is a general economic downturn, evidence of difficulty finding a job cannot be used to extend a notice period as was done in Zoldowski. Employers may still have to provide a lengthy notice period based on the other factors, but not one that is unreasonable in the circumstances of the broader economy.

As a result, it is unclear how the general economic conditions created by COVID-19 will affect the reasonable notice period.

While employers ordinarily have difficulty relying on their financial hardship to reduce an employee’s notice period, COVID-19 is posing new legal challenges and how the law may evolve in the face of them is uncertain.

What is certain, however, is that we have entered unprecedented times. As always, we recommend that employers avoid premature layoffs or terminations without first seeking legal advice and understanding the consequences of those decisions.


Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.

Bonus After Being Fired

Businesses often refuse to pay a bonus after an employee is fired, but, in some cases, the law in Ontario requires them to. Employers need carefully drafted bonus policies if they wish to avoid this obligation and employees need to know when to fight for their bonus after being fired, laid off or terminated.

Determining Whether a Bonus is Owed

The established legal test for determining an employee’s entitlement to damages on account of a lost bonus was set out by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Paquette v TeraGo Networks Inc. (“Paquette“).

In Paquette, the Court of Appeal judge noted that the motion judge’s analysis focused only on the wording of the incentive plan.  The Court of Appeal judge stated that the motion judge should have focused on whether the wording of the plan was effective to limit his right to receive compensation for lost wages (including both salary and bonus) during the period of reasonable notice.

The legal test involves consideration of the following questions:

  1. Was the bonus an integral part of the employee’s compensation package, thereby triggering a common law entitlement to damages in lieu of bonus? and
  2. If so, is there any language in the bonus plan that would restrict the employee’s common law entitlement to damages in lieu of a bonus over the reasonable notice period?

The Court relied upon the basic principle of damages for wrongful dismissal that the employee should be in the position that he would have been, had he not been wrongfully terminated. Based on this, the Court found that the employee would have received the bonus and the requirement that he be actively employed could not limit his right to the bonus, because the reason he was not working was the employer’s wrongdoing in terminating the employee.

Language In the Contract and Bonus Plan Matters

Bonus plans can be effective in restricting an employee’s entitlement to bonuses in some cases but not in all cases. The plans must be carefully drafted so that they contain clear and unambiguous terms because courts are increasingly applying detailed scrutiny to their language and wording when determining entitlement.

The language must be very clear and state restrictions to entitlements in very definite terms – with no ambiguity. For example, the commonly used restrictive clause “employee must be actively employed” or engaged in “active employment” can be interpreted in different ways. Whether an employee is actively employed during the reasonable notice or statutory notice period is not always clear.

In another case, Kielb v National Money Mart Company (“Kielb”), an employee had signed an employment contract that contained a bonus plan limitation clause that stated the bonus would not accrue and was only payable on the payout date.

The employee argued that this limitation clause was unenforceable due to its ambiguous and contradictory nature and because it contravened the Employment Standards Act. The trial judge rejected these arguments. He found the limitation clause to be unambiguous. Read in its entirety, it was clear that if the bonus payout date had fallen within the notice period, then the employer would have been obliged to honour it. Upon appeal, the Court of Appeal agreed that the language disentitled the employee . 

A Bonus Limitation Clause Needs to be Brought to the Employee’s Attention

In 2019, the Court of Appeal seems to have held that not only does a bonus limitation clause need to be clear, enforceable and unambiguous, it may also need to be brought to the workers attention.

In Dawe v The Equitable Life Insurance Company of Canada (“Dawe“), an employee was terminated without cause after 37 years of service. He sued for wrongful dismissal.  The restrictive term provided that in order to participate in the plan, an employee “must be in the employ of the company at the time” the pay is processed.  The employee alleged that he was never made aware of the change to his entitlements.

The motion judge found that the employee was entitled to his bonus for the notice period because it was an integral component of his compensation and the terms of the plans did not displace his common law entitlement. The employer appealed the motion judge’s decision to the Court of Appeal. Although the Court of Appeal ultimately agreed that the language in the contract and bonus plan effectively limited the employee’s bonus entitlement after termination, the Court of Appeal did not overturn the motion judge’s decision. The Court found that there was insufficient proof indicating that the employee fully appreciated the impact of the clause on his bonus entitlement after getting fired. 

The Final Word on Bonuses after Termination

The Ontario Courts are concerned that employees know clearly what their rights are on termination. In this regard, their is an emphasis on the words used in the employers contracts and policies. Whether an employee is entitled to payment of their bonus after being terminated is difficult to know with any certainty for laymen and laywoman. This area of the law is currently in flux. The Supreme Court of Canada is currently opining on this issue and the law could change with their next decision.

While I ordinarily try to avoid shameless plugs, legal advice is critical in these circumstances and should be sought out.

Suggested recommendations for employers:

  • Keep in mind that, if there is nothing that states otherwise, employees are entitled to bonus payments during the period of reasonable notice. As well, even if there is a contract or policy that says otherwise, it may not be enforceable, particularly where the result is harsh.
  • The use of clear, unambiguous language is critical but is difficult to achieve in practice. Seek legal advice when drafting employment agreements, especially when including limiting language. The courts have clearly shown their willingness to rule against employers where there is any ambiguity.
  • Structure compensation packages for new hires such that the bonuses are not an integral part of compensation, as well as including limiting language.
  • Stipulate within the bonus plan that employees have no entitlement to bonuses during periods of reasonable notice. This limiting language must be clear and unambiguous.
  • Create and practice a fair and clear process when assessing entitlements to a discretionary bonus for the period up to an employee’s dismissal. 
  • Conscientiously document performance issues or other issues that may influence bonus eligibility as per applicable bonus policies or employment contracts.

Suggested recommendations for employees:

Employees need to recognise the importance of understanding all terms of their contract before signing it. Suggested course of actions for employees include:

  • Employees should not make assumptions as to whether or not they are entitled to bonuses, particularly where they have accrued. 
  • Employees need to take proactive steps to seek advice before signing any agreements.
  • Bargain for better terms in contracts before signing them.
  • Explore bonus claims even if the bonus plans appear to preclude them from payment

The bottom line is that there continues to be uncertainty regarding the rules around assessing an employee’s right to a bonus after dismissal. Courts strictly scrutinise wordings of bonus plans and employment contacts as part of their decision processes. In the end, employers need to ensure that their bonus policy includes clear, unambiguous language regarding the entitlements of employees upon dismissal.


Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.

Negotiating Maximum Termination Pay and Severance Pay

Often, people who lose their job assume that if they receive any termination pay, severance pay, or pay in lieu of notice then they must have been properly compensated for being fired. This is far from the case. There are many factors and considerations a person should be aware of when figuring out what their termination entitlements are and more often than not an employment lawyer can help them get what is fair.

Statutory Minimum Notice Periods VS Common Law Notice Periods

Upon being fired, an employee is entitled to receive either (1) working notice, or (2) pay-in-lieu of notice. Working notice is not unusual but more often than not an employee is unhappy about being fired and an employer is concerned that the employee may do something to hurt the employer’s business while working to the end of the notice period. For that reason, employers usually chooses to terminate the employee immediately and, provide pay in lieu of notice.

The Employment Standards Act contains only the minimum entitlements that employees must receive on termination. Likewise, the Canada Labour Code sets out the minimum notice periods and severance entitlements for federally regulated employees (i.e. banking and telecommunications). However, just like the minimum wage, most employees should get a lot more than the minimums.

Judge made law or otherwise the law made by the Courts is called the “common law”. It entitles most employees to “reasonable notice”. Reasonable notice is much greater than the statutory minimums. Employees default to getting common law reasonable notice, unless they have a written employment contract that says otherwise.

There is no set formula to calculate common law notice. Generally, it is accepted that the average short-term employee is owed three to six months of notice, a long-term employee in a senior position may be owed up to 24 months or more, and somewhere in the middle for the other lengths of employment. How senior the employee’s position is will also be a factor. For example, a vice president or manager may be entitled to higher pay in lieu of notice that an employee doing a low level job, even for the same length of time. The employee’s age and the availability of alternative employment are also factors the Courts consider.

You can learn more about ‘Reasonable Notice’ and what the appropriate length is for different employees in my earlier article on “How much notice/severance should I get after being fired?.”

Termination Clauses

A termination clause in an employment contract alters an employee’s entitlements to common law reasonable notice. While it could technically provide for more, more often than not, employers include termination clauses to limit what an employee would otherwise get after being fired. Termination clauses cannot limit entitlements to below the minimums.

Where there is a valid and enforceable termination clause, an employee would not be successful if they attempted to seek more in a wrongful dismissal action. Fortunately, the Courts are often persuaded to strike out termination provisions. There are a number of different reasons that a court might find a termination clause unenforceable, such as pressure being put on the employee at the time of signing of the contract or where the limits on the severance pay are less than the minimums. If the termination clause is successfully struck out common law notice applies.

An experienced employment lawyer can offer advice on options on how to deal with terminations — for example whether one should sue for wrongful dismissal or alternately file a claim for termination pay or severance pay with the Ministry of Labour. It should be noted that a person cannot do both – sue for wrongful dismissal and file a claim for termination or severance pay. Seeking legal advice on rights is recommended to make the right decision. An employment lawyer can also help ensure payments for common law notice are maximized either through court action or a negotiated settlement.

When are termination clauses unenforceable?

In Movati Athletic Group v Bergeron, an employee had worked for about 16 months before she was terminated without cause. Purporting to rely on the termination clause in her contract, the company gave her the minimum entitlements under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA). The employee claimed damages for wrongful dismissal arguing that the termination clause in her employment contract was not clear enough to rebut the presumption that she was entitled to common law reasonable notice of termination.

The court found the termination clause not clear and as a result, the employee received three months’ pay in lieu of reasonable notice of termination instead of her statutory minimum entitlements. This case illustrates how important it is for employers to make all efforts to expertly craft termination clause wordings and how important it is for employees to have their employment contracts checked by a lawyer before deciding whether it is actually enforceable.

A court will not enforce a termination clause that excludes minimum statutory entitlements upon dismissal as set out in the ESA or Canada Labour Code. It is illegal for an employer to provide less than the minimum standards of the ESA or Code, even if the employee has voluntarily agreed to accept a lower amount. Additionally, a court will not enforce a termination clause if it has not been properly drafted. Poorly drafted clauses are very common and any ambiguity in the language in the termination clauses usually acts against the employer.

Termination Provisions must use the clearest possible language when trying to limit an employee’s rights upon termination. Failing to use explicit language leaves the door open for varying views and interpretations of intention and, therefore, the clause may be set aside by a court for ambiguity.  Courts resolve drafting ambiguities in favour of employees.

Laws on termination clauses continue to evolve. It is important to keep abreast of changes and consult with employment lawyers when employers are drafting clauses or when you, an employee, are terminated


Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.

The Duty to Mitigate

When employees are dismissed with cause or without just cause, they are obligated to make a reasonable effort to find comparable new employment within the period of reasonable notice. This obligation is referred to as their “Duty to Mitigate”. In other words, employees have an obligation to do what they can to limit the damage they may have suffered from their termination. They cannot sit back and do nothing to find another job throughout the notice period and just charge that to their former employer.

In this article, we will review what employees and employers need to know about the duty to mitigate, including factors to consider and how courts decide on whether or not it is met.

What is the Duty to Mitigate?

The duty to mitigate is engaged within a reasonable period of time after an employee is terminated. Employers may argue in court that damages are not owed because the employee could have been re-employed if they tried harder to find a comparable job. In these cases the courts make thorough assessments of effort and consider a broad range of factors, circumstances and evidence. Awards will be significantly reduced if the courts find that efforts are found to be insufficient or if the employee unreasonably refused alternate comparable employment. 

Employees are expected to take steps that any reasonable person in a similar situation would take to find comparable employment and to accept that employment if it becomes available. Of note, though, a dismissed employee is not expected to accept employment that isn’t comparable to their former position. For example, a senior executive at one company wouldn’t be expected to take on an entry-level or mid-management position elsewhere just for the sake of being employed.

What does comparable employment mean?

The Ontario Court of Appeal has emphasized that “comparable employment” does not mean “any employment”. In order to be “comparable”, offers of employment must be comprehensive of the status, hours, and remuneration of the employee’s employment with his/her former employer.

How to Mitigate?

There are different ways that employees can mitigate their damages from a wrongful or constructive dismissal. An employee can accept:

  1. Re-employment with the same employer
  2. Employment in a non-comparable job position, or
  3. Employment in a comparable job position

Re-employment with the same employer

In some cases, an employer may dismiss an employee from their job, but offer a different position within the company or the same position but at a reduced pay rate or reduced level of responsibility.

Several judges have concluded that an employee can refuse an offer of alternative employment with the same employer where the work environment the employee would be returning to is hostile or would cause loss of dignity or embarrassment. Courts look at the entire context including the employee’s relationships with individuals at the former workplace, salary, and similar work conditions and responsibilities.

Lets look at three legal cases that cover different decision outcomes.

Dussault v Imperial Oil Limited

The Ontario Court of Appeal found that two employees who refused offers of employment from the purchaser of their employer did not fail to mitigate their damages since the employment that was offered was not “comparable.” In the case, the plaintiffs received less favourable offers of employment — offers where their salaries would be reduced after a period of 18 months and their prior service with Imperial would not be recognised. As a result, they both rejected the offers and brought a wrongful dismissal action against Imperial. 

The case went before the Court of Appeal during which time Imperial Oil argued that the motion judge erred in failing to find that the employees had not mitigated their damages by accepting comparable employment with Mac’s (who had purchased the previous employer). The Court rejected that argument and agreed with the decision of the motion judge that the employment offered by Mac’s was not comparable and that it would have resulted in an immediate, substantial decrease in the plaintiffs’ benefits, as well as a material drop in their base salaries. As well, the Court found there was no reason to depart from the well-established principle that “comparable employment” does not mean “any employment,” and requires an offer with comparable status, hours, and pay.

Benjamin v. Cascades Canada ULC

In this case, an employee chose to retrain instead of accepting a comparable employment offer and the Court fund that the duty to mitigate was not met. The Judge wrote: “retraining on its own is not evidence of a failure to reasonably mitigate damages; rather, if an employer can establish that comparable work is available and the employee made a choice to retrain and not to seek comparable employment, retraining would not constitute reasonable mitigation.”

This case indicates that retraining can be considered reasonable mitigation in certain cases but employers will not be required to fund retraining through the payment of reasonable notice for employees that could have otherwise secured a similar position instead. Interestingly, participating in retraining as mitigation in cases where no comparable employment is available may be considered as “reasonable”.

Evans v. Teamsters Local Union No. 31

In the third case the employee rejected the comparable employment offer and the duty to mitigate was not met. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that an employee has to accept alternate jobs offered by the employer as part of the duty to mitigate only if a “reasonable person would accept that opportunity”. Where a reasonable person would not return to work for the same employer then there is no need to return to the company that fired you just because it is offering a comparable job.

Re-employment with a Non-Comparable Job

There is no obligation to mitigate by taking a job that is not comparable and/or not in line with what the employees training, education and experience has prepared him for. As an easy example, a former CEO does not have to take a job at McDonalds after termination.

Employment in a comparable job position

Upon finding a new comparable job, an employee’s entitlements to reasonable notice end.

Conclusion

Employer tips:

  • Employers can reduce their potential liability by offering support to departing employees. Such measures can include career counselling, outplacement services, reference letters and notifications of comparable positions with their businesses or elsewhere. 
  • Offering positive references and making efforts to end things on good terms with employees will also reduce employer’s liability by making it easier for the employees to find a new position.
  • If the employee fails to take advantage of this assistance, the employer may be able to prove a failure to mitigate thus reducing company liability for wrongful dismissal damages.

Employee tips:

  • Employees should be aware that the onus is on them to make a reasonable efforts to seek comparable employment when dismissed.
  • Always create and keep a detailed log sheet of all efforts to find a new job. Keep dates and times listed for when you updated your resume, updated your Linked In or other social media platforms, join Indeed or Monster, saved jobs to consider, worked on cover letters. Keep a list of jobs you applied for and whether or not you got interviews. The more detail and effort included in your job  search logs the easier it will be to establish your attempts to mitigate.

Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.