What is 'Just Cause' for Dismissal?

There is a reason that Canadian courts refer to just cause for dismissal as the "capital punishment of employment law." The implications can be grave. If you are fired for just cause, you will likely face a number of problems. These can include your former employer refusing to provide severance, Service Canada denying your application for Employment Insurance ("EI") benefits and potential negative work references while seeking re-employment.

Because the implications of a just cause dismissal are so severe, the law requires employers to meet a high threshold before they can successfully make this assertion. An employer that fires an employee for just cause must be able to show that the employee's conduct was of such a degree that it was no longer compatible with ongoing employment. The key is that the sanction imposed (termination) must be proportional to the misconduct in question.

In any determination of whether just cause for dismissal is a reasonable response, three questions must be answered:

  1. What is the nature and context of the employee's misconduct?
  2. What were the circumstances surrounding the misconduct?
  3. Is dismissal an appropriate response?

In answering these questions, context is critical. The employee's disciplinary history, the nature of the workplace and the employer's response to similar previous acts can all play a role in determining whether a just cause dismissal will be sustained. Furthermore, the term 'misconduct' incorporates a wide range of actions including theft, dishonesty, acts of violence, chronic absenteeism, misuse of company assets, sexual harassment and social media activity.

The recent case of Phanlouvong v. Northfield Metal Products (1994) Ltd. et al highlights the critical role that context will play, and serves as a reminder of how hard a just cause dismissal is to establish. Consider the following:

Mr. Phanlouvong worked on an assembly line at a manufacturing facility operated by Northfield. In this role, he was positioned at a work station with three other employees and had a fraught relationship with one of these individuals, Mr. Bailey.

One morning prior to the commencement of his shift, Mr.Bailey passed Mr. Phanlouvong with his elbows extended, carrying dirty gloves. As he passed, Mr. Bailey knocked Mr. Phanlouvong with one of his elbows. Mr. Phanlouvong took immediate exception to this and punched Mr. Bailey in the face, breaking his safety glasses and bloodying his nose.

Following this incident, Northfield conducted an internal investigation and ultimately decided to terminate Mr. Phanlouvong's employment for just cause. Mr. Phanlouvong responded by filing a claim for wrongful dismissal, which the company vigorously fought.

At trial, the judge rejected Northfield's argument that it had just cause to fire Mr. Phanlouvong and awarded him a severance package based on 15 months' pay. In so doing, the judge found that Northfield had failed to consider whether there were any reasonable (lesser) alternatives to termination and commented that despite his misconduct:

Mr. Phanlouvong had 16 years of service with Northfield with no previous incidents of discipline of any nature, much less an incidents involving violence. His supervisors described him in evidence as an excellent employee.

The Bottom Line

As an employee, you should be aware that just cause dismissal is not easy for an employer to prove. If you are fired for just cause, it makes sense to challenge it as you have much to gain and very little to lose. If the employer cannot show that its decision was a reasonable response, you will be eligible to receive a severance package and stand a far better chance of accessing EI benefits.

As an employer, while just cause dismissal is a high threshold to meet, in certain circumstances it is the appropriate response. The three key elements that should be present prior to any decision to implement a termination for just cause are: consistent and equal treatment of staff; active and appropriate management of any acts of misconduct; and thorough documentation.

Employment and Labour Laws are not always straightforward, but whether you are an employee or an employer, understanding your rights and duties will only stand to benefit you. Reach out to an employment lawyer or labour lawyer today if you have any questions and be sure to get what you deserve and safeguard yourself for the future. The lawyers at Vey Willetts LLP have a proven track record and are happy to assist.  

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