Contrary to popular belief, it is not always easy to know when someone has resigned. Even if an employee uses words such as “I quit,” a court may still find that the employee has not truly resigned. An employer in Alberta learned this lesson the hard way.
Carroll v Purcee Industrial Controls Ltd. (“PIC”)
Mr. Carroll worked for the defendant first in Calgary, Alberta. He then moved with his family to Madagascar, where he continued to work for PIC. In 2012, business was in decline and the relationship between Mr. Carroll began to deteriorate. In August 2012, Mr. Carroll tendered his written resignation and requested a fair severance package. PIC rejected his resignation and urged Mr. Carroll to take his planned holiday. Mr. Carroll continued to work for PIC after he returned from his holiday.
The relationship between Mr. Carroll and PIC became increasingly strained. In May 2013, Mr. Carroll again suggested they should terminate his employment “on professional terms”, and outlined his proposed terms of severance. One of the owners told Mr. Carroll that he would be ready to discuss the matter in a few days. Mr. Carroll responded that he planned to move back to Canada with his family in July.
Mr. Carroll’s employment ended on June 7, 2013, when PIC purported to accept his resignation.
At trial, Mr. Carroll argued his employment was terminated without cause and he was entitled to pay in lieu of notice. PIC claimed Mr. Carroll voluntarily resigned from his employment, in which case he was not entitled to any damages.
A resignation must be clear and unequivocal, which involves both a subjective and objective component. Subjectively, did the employee intend to resign? Objectively, viewing all the circumstances, would a reasonable employer have understood that the employee had resigned? The court looks at the employee’s words, acts and the surrounding circumstances.
Despite the fact that all indications of severing the employment relationship were initiated by Mr. Carroll, the court found that he did not intend to resign from his employment. The court found that Mr. Carroll’s words, when viewed contextually, were “an emotional reaction.” Mr. Carroll’s resignations came from a place of frustration, even though they were not said in the heat of the moment. Furthermore, the fact that that the owner indicated he would be ready to discuss the matter in a few days was consistent with someone who was contemplating the proposal outlined by Mr. Carroll (i.e. he could not have considered Mr. Carroll to have resigned).
More importantly, the court found it difficult to accept the resignation was clear and unequivocal when it was tied to a proposal for terms of severance. In the circumstances, the burden was on the employer to confirm with Mr. Carroll that he truly intended to resign. The court concluded that Mr Carroll was dismissed, and therefore entitled to seven months’ pay in lieu of notice.
Lessons to be Learned
The onus is on the employer to confirm an employee’s true intentions behind a purported resignation. Otherwise, the employer risks having to respond to a wrongful dismissal claim in the future. Therefore, even in situations where employees utter words typically associated with a resignation (such as “I quit”), it is important not to take such words at face value. In these circumstances, or any time an employee brings up the matter of a severance package, it is important to consult a lawyer.
In the recent decision of Andros v Colliers Macaulay Nicolls Inc., the Ontario Court of Appeal (“OCA”) found yet another termination clause to be unenforceable. In this decision, the OCA reaffirmed and clarified various principles surrounding the enforceability of such clauses.
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