A wrongful dismissal occurs when an employer does not provide enough notice of termination. An employee can claim damages equal to the remuneration the employee would have earned during the applicable notice period. During the notice period, an employee is subject to the “duty to mitigate,” which means they must look for alternative employment. Notice periods can be as long as 24 months, and even longer in exceptional circumstances. Increasingly, wrongful dismissal cases are getting to court before the reasonable notice period has expired. In these cases, the employee is still subject to the duty to mitigate for the balance of the notice period. In a recent case, the Superior Court of Justice had to answer the question of how the issue of future mitigation should be recognised in the calculation of damages given the fact that the period of reasonable notice had not yet expired.
Patterson v IBM Canada Ltd, 2017 ONSC 1264
In Patterson v IBM Canada Ltd., the hearing took place in February 2017, just over eight months after the Mr. Patterson’s employment was terminated. The judge found that the reasonable notice period in Mr. Patterson’s case was 18 months.
Mr. Patterson claimed that, given his job search history thus far, his prospects of finding alternative employment were low, and he should therefore receive the full 18 months’ pay. IBM suggested the court should discount any award of damages by 10% to reflect the possibility of future mitigation, i.e. that Mr. Patterson may obtain employment during the remainder of the notice period.
The judge noted that the courts have used several approaches in these cases, the two main ones being the “trust and accounting” approach (where the plaintiff is required to account to the defendant for future income if any is earned during the notice period) and the contingency approach (which is the approach IBM was suggesting).
In this case, the judge preferred the contingency approach, and reduced Mr. Patterson’s damages accordingly. The judge found that if the trust and accounting approach were to be applied, Mr. Patterson would have no incentive to continue in his job search. Furthermore, the contingency approach avoids the possibility of future legal entanglements between the parties.
Lessons to be Learned
There is no consensus on which approach an Ontario judge will follow when a wrongful dismissal case is decided before the end of the reasonable notice period. If you are planning on dismissing a long-term employee, it is important to consult with a lawyer to discuss whether a severance package with a built-in contingency approach can be offered, rather than leaving that decision to a judge after spending significant legal costs. The lawyer can also explain the extent of the employee’s obligation to mitigate (look for work) throughout the litigation process.
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The issue of whether a termination clause limits an employee’s entitlement to the minimum notice set out in the Employment Standards Act may be the most litigated issue in employment law over the past 5 years.