When Can an Employer Terminate an Employee for Just Cause?

Sep 20, 2016

“Just Cause” is a legal term that describes when employers are justified in terminating an employee without providing the employee any notice of termination.

In a recent decision, the Court found that a teacher’s misconduct was serious enough to warrant a just cause termination.

The Case, Fernandes v. Peel Educational & Tutorial Services Limited.

A private school terminated a teacher for just cause after discovering that the teacher had submitted falsified and incorrect student marks. The teacher still submitted inaccurate marks although given two opportunities and lied to his employer to cover up for the mistakes.

The Test for Just Cause

An employer is justified in dismissing an employee for just cause when the employee’s misconduct is “sufficiently serious that it struck at the heart of the employment relationship.” There are three important factors:

  1. determine the nature and extent of the misconduct;

Recognizing that teachers occupy a special position of trust and have professional obligations to students and the school, the teacher’s actions constituted serious misconduct. The school trusted the teacher to properly evaluate student progress. The teacher intentionally acted against these interests.

  1. consider the surrounding circumstances;

The courts will look at both the employer and employee’s circumstances to determine whether just cause exists. Most importantly for the teacher, he did not describe anything going on in his life that would affect his job performance. If he did, this could have explained his actions.

For the employer, the fact that the school could have suffered serious harm mattered greatly. It was a private school whose accreditation relied on proper evaluation standards. The teacher endangered the school’s accreditation. The Court stressed that even though the school did not suffer harm, it is the severity of the potential harm that is considered in just cause.

  1. decide whether dismissal was warranted.

This last factor combines the above two to determine whether dismissal was warranted. Despite the duration of the acts was short, 2 months, and the teacher was a long serving employee, the misconduct was sufficiently serious that it struck at the heart of the employment relationship.

Lessons to be Learned:

  1. Before terminating an employee for cause, keep the three above factors in mind. The Court signalled that employers should be aware of any difficulties that the employee may have that could affect job performance.
  2. Terminating an employee for just cause is a serious decision and should not be made lightly. If employers do not have just cause, they could face a costly wrongful dismissal action.
  3. Some judges refer to an employee termination as economic capital punishment. It is generally very difficult – but not impossible – to prove just cause. Employers should therefore consult with a lawyer before terminating an employee for just cause.

For over 25 years, Doug MacLeod of the MacLeod Law Firm has been advising employers on all aspects of the employment relationship. If you have any questions, you can contact him at 416 317-9894 or at [email protected]

The material and information in this blog and this website are for general information only. They should not be relied on as legal advice or opinion. The authors make no claims, promises, or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of any information referred to in this blog or its links. No person should act or refrain from acting in reliance on any information found on this website or blog. Readers should obtain appropriate professional advice from a lawyer duly licensed in the relevant jurisdiction. These materials do not create a lawyer-client relationship between you and any of the authors or the MacLeod Law Firm.

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