The Ontario Court of Appeal recently released a decision on the enforceability of termination clauses in employment agreements that contain failsafe provisions.
A “failsafe provision” is a portion of a termination clause that provides that, regardless of what the termination clause provides, an employee who is terminated on a without cause basis will always receive at least the minimum notice of termination, benefit continuation and severance pay the employee is entitled to receive under employment standards legislation.
Amberber v IBM Canada Ltd.
Mr. Amberber’s employment contract contained a termination clause that entitled him to notice of termination equal to the greater of (a) one month’s salary, or (b) one week of your current annual base salary, for each completed six months worked since his start date, up to a maximum of 12 months’ salary. This amount expressly included all payments to which the employee might be entitled under employment standards legislation and at common law. This part of the clause, which the motion judge termed as the “options provision,” was followed by a failsafe provision.
After he was terminated, Mr. Amberber sued IBM Canada Ltd. (“IBM”) for wrongful dismissal and claimed he was entitled to pay in lieu of notice at common law. At the motion, Mr. Amberber advanced three arguments. The motion judge only gave effect to one of the arguments: the termination clause failed to rebut the presumption of common law reasonable notice of termination.
The motion judge found that although the termination clause was one paragraph, it broke down into two parts. The inclusive payment provision immediately followed the options provision, so the motion judge interpreted that the provision applied to the first part. Because the inclusive payment provision was not repeated at the end of the clause, it was not clear that the inclusive payment provision was meant to apply to the failsafe provision. The motion judge found that the inclusive payment provision could just as easily have been included at the end of the paragraph and could have just as easily been specified to apply to both scenarios.
On appeal, the motion judge’s decision was overturned. The Ontario Court of Appeal found that the motion judge made a fundamental error when she subdivided the termination clause into what she regarded as its constituent parts and interpreted them individually. Rather, the clause must be interpreted as a whole, and when read as a whole, there could be no doubt as to the clause’s meaning. To hold that the inclusive payment provision applies to only one part of the clause but not the other, gave the clause a strained and unreasonable interpretation. The Ontario Court of Appeal reminded judges that the court should not strain to create an ambiguity where none exists.
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