Since the Supreme Court decision in Hryniak v Mauldin, terminated employees are increasingly seeking summary judgment. This method of resolution offers wrongfully dismissed employees a fast and cost-effective method of obtaining judgment. The courts have specifically recognized that straightforward wrongful dismissal cases are particularly well-suited for summary judgment. Even just cause terminations are often decided in this manner.
However, a recent Court of Appeal decision may have halted the rush to summary judgment and may make parties (and their lawyers) think twice before going down the summary judgment route.
In Singh v Concept Plastics Limited, a Mississauga plant shut down and relocated to Brantford. Two long-term employees declined moving to the new location and brought wrongful dismissal claims under simplified procedure (rule 76 of the Rules of Civil Procedure). Shortly thereafter, the employees brought a motion for summary judgment. At the motion, the employer argued that summary judgment was inappropriate as it was not able to put its best foot forward to present its case. The plaintiffs made statements during discovery that contradicted their affidavits in the motion, and there were credibility issues regarding their mitigation efforts. Since the simplified procedure does not allow cross examinations on affidavits (Rule 76.04 (1)) and puts a two-hour limit on discovery (Rule 76.04 (2)), the employer argued that they were not able to properly explore these issues. Nonetheless, the motion judge granted summary judgment and awarded 18 and 20 months’ reasonable notice to the two employees.
The Court of Appeal overturned the motion judge’s decision. The Court found that the judge failed to assess the fairness of deciding the matter by way of summary judgment considering the procedural constraints. Specifically, the Court held that Rule 76.04(1) put “significant limitations” on the employer’s ability to prove its case. The motion judge further failed to make credibility findings and failed to explain how she resolved the conflicts of evidence. It was ultimately unfair to award summary judgment in light of these issues.
Relying on Combined Air Mechanical Services Inc. v Flesch, the Court was not espousing new ideas on the limitations of motions for summary judgment, as cases with significant credibility issues are typically not appropriate for summary judgment. However, Singh should signal employment lawyers to think twice about proceeding with summary judgment, especially with claims initiated under simplified procedure.
If parties are keen on proceeding with summary judgment, it may be worthwhile to evaluate whether to bring the claim under the “regular” procedure instead of simplified procedure, if possible. Likewise, for claims already initiated under the simplified procedure, it may be wise to evaluate whether bringing a motion for summary judgment is appropriate. Having a motion for summary judgment dismissed may attract expensive legal costs.
Motions for summary judgment still provide an expeditious method of handling wrongful dismissal claims. However, the Court in Singh should give pause to parties in determining whether summary judgment is the best route to follow for their case.
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