An update on mitigation: What happens when a wrongful dismissal case gets to court while the employee is still unemployed?

Apr 3, 2017

The Basics

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.

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.

 

k

Recent Posts

Toronto Office

702 - 2 Bloor Street West,
Toronto, ON M4W 3E2

Barrie Office

277 - 92 Caplan Avenue,
Barrie, ON L4N 9J2

Collingwood Office

220 - 1 First Street
Collingwood, ON
L9Y 1A1

Contact

Phone

+1 (888) 640-1728

Fax

(866) 883-8445

Email

[email protected]

Toronto Office

702 - 2 Bloor Street West, Toronto ON M4W 3E2

Barrie Office

277 - 92 Caplan Avenue, Barrie ON L4N 9J2

Collingwood Office

220 - 1 First Street, Collingwood, ON L9Y 1A1

Translate

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!