Are terminated employees entitled to their unpaid bonuses?

Jan 30, 2017

We have previously written about when employees have been found to be entitled to receive their bonus at the time of termination.

To recap, when an employee is terminated without cause, they are entitled to receive notice or pay in lieu of notice. Wrongful dismissal damages are intended to place the terminated employee in the same financial position they would have been in had such notice been given. When the court is calculating wrongful dismissal damages, it will typically include all of the compensation and benefits that the employee would have earned during the notice period. However, whether a bonus the employee would have received should be included in such an award is a complicated question that depends partly on whether it has become an integral part of the employee’s salary.

Bain v UBS Securities Canada Inc.

In this case, Mr. Bain, a 14-year employee, earned a base salary of $385,000 plus  bonus.

Although at the beginning of his employment his bonus was paid by cash, payment changed so that his bonus was paid partly by cash and partly by shares in UBS.

Mr. Bain lost his job when it became redundant. He was paid his entitlements under the Employment Standards Act but was not paid his bonus for 2012 or for the three months that he worked in 2013.

After concluding that Mr. Bain was entitled to receive 18 months’ reasonable notice, the judge turned to the question of whether Mr. Bain should receive his bonus for 2012 and the three months he worked in 2013. The judge decided that the bonus was an integral part of Mr. Bain’s remuneration: he received it, albeit in different amounts, every year; he had always been awarded a bonus in his 14 years of employment and it was a significant component of his income. In fact, Mr. Bain had negotiated a minimum bonus as a term of his employment contract when he decided to join UBS.

The judge noted that UBS had a detailed compensation scheme in place and had the stated goal of transparency and fairness in the granting of bonuses. The fact that the bonus was solely in the discretion of management did not relieve UBS from its obligation to follow a process that was fair and reasonable, using objective criteria applied consistently among employees. The judge also noted that Mr. Bain’s 2012 evaluation contained many “exceeded objectives” assessments, and that his numbers were higher for 2012 than for 2011. The judge looked at evidence from other managers and the bonuses they received, which ranged from $402,300 to over $2 million.

UBS attempted to argue that a new compensation plan was introduced in 2011 that stipulated employees had to be employed with UBS to be paid their bonus. The judge could not conclude that Mr. Bain had accepted this fundamental change to his entitlement to a bonus, or that the new limitations were brought to his attention. The judge concluded that to accept UBS’ argument would mean that Mr. Bain became disentitled to a bonus because of the unilateral actions of UBS, over which Mr. Bain had no control. The judge concluded that Mr. Bain should receive his bonus for 2012, the three months he worked in 2013 and the bonus he would have earned over his 18 month notice period.

Lessons to be learned:

  1. In some circumstances, an employee may be entitled to the bonus they would have earned had they not been dismissed, which includes the bonus they would have earned during their notice period.
  2. An employer may limit an employee’s right to receive bonus payments upon termination, in certain circumstances.
  3. An employer must ensure that this limit is brought to the attention of the employee and forms a part of the employment contract.

There are many ways to attack the termination clause in an employment contract. 

I am now surprised if employee counsel does not claim that their client’s  termination clause is not legally enforceable - usually because the termination clause does not allegedly comply with the Employment Standards Act.

This blog considers a case, McKercher v Stantec Architecture Ltd., 2019 SKQB 100, where an employee successfully attacked the termination clause in his contract because he did not explicitly agree to it after being promoted. 

The Facts

In 2006, Mr. McKercher commenced employment as a staff architect. The termination clause in his employment contract stated: 

Termination other than for cause will be with notice or pay in lieu of notice, based on your length of service. If the Employer terminates your employment for other than just cause you will receive the greater of:

  1. a)   Two weeks notice or pay in lieu of notice during the first two years of employment increasing by one week for each additional completed year of employment to a maximum of three months notice or pay in lieu of notice.

      or

  1. b)   The minimum notice of termination (or pay in lieu of notice) required by applicable statutes.

Eleven years later, when Mr. McKercher was employed as a Business Centre Sector Leader, his employment was terminated. The employer paid him the three months termination pay he was owed under his employment contract.

 

Another way to attack a termination clause: What is the changed substratum doctrine?

An Ontario judge in a 2012 case, MacGregor v National Home Services, 2012 ONSC 2042 (CanLII), described this legal doctrine as follows: "The changed substratum doctrine … provides that if an employee enters into an employment contract that specifies the notice period for a dismissal, the contractual notice period is not enforceable if over the course of employment, the important terms of the agreement concerning the employee’s responsibilities and status has significantly changed."

 

The rationale for this doctrine has been described by one judge, Schmidt v AMEC Earth & Environmental Ltd., 2004 BSCS 2012 (CanLII), as follows: "In my view, it was incumbent on the defendants to advise Mr. Schmidt that they intended to continue to rely upon the termination provision set out in the Agreement when substantial changes in his employment occurred. This would have allowed him to consider the matter and to negotiate for other terms. If the defendants wished to continue to rely on the termination provisions there ought to have been a ratification of the provisions as the nature of Mr. Schmidt’s employment changed."

 

Decision

The judge hearing this case relied on the following factors when deciding not to enforce the termination clause in the employment contract: ”...there is no evidence that (the employer) made it clear to the (employee) that the notice of termination provisions were intended to apply to the positions to which he was promoted. The employment agreement contains no express wording to this effect, nor does it contain any wording to support the inference of such an intent. Further, and in keeping with the analysis in Schmidt, the Court received no evidence that, as it promoted the plaintiff, SAL reasserted its understanding and expectation that the notice of termination limit would remain in effect.”

 

Lesson to be learned:

An employer should make it clear that the termination clause in an employment contract applies when an employee is promoted. This expression of this intent should be in writing and should be clear and unambiguous. I recommend that an organization’s employment be reviewed by an employment lawyer every year or two. If your employment contract does not address this issue then think about doing so the next time it is reviewed.

 

For 30 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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