The Supreme Court of Canada, in a recent unanimous decision in Matthews v. Ocean Nutrition Canada Limited, restored an award exceeding $1 million to a constructively dismissed employee.
In so doing, the Court affirmed that it remains:
… resolute in asserting that employment is a source of personal fulfilment — that brand of human dignity that comes from work — and this often comes into sharpest focus when a job is unfairly taken away.
David Matthews, an experienced chemist, worked for Ocean Nutrition Canada for 14 years. As a senior manager, he was part of the employer’s Long Term Incentive Plan (LTIP).
The LTIP rewarded employees for their previous contributions and incentivized them to continue contributing to the company’s success.
Under the LTIP, Mr. Matthews would receive a portion of the proceeds of the sale of the company, if it was sold while he was employed with the company. Payments were based on a formula in the plan.
In 2007 the company hired a new Chief Operating Officer.
Over the next four years, the new COO began a campaign to marginalize Mr. Matthews. He reduced Mr. Matthews’ staff and responsibilities.
The COO went behind his back and ignored his requests to discuss his role. He was repeatedly dishonest toward him about his attempts to minimize Mr. Matthews’ role. He lied to Mr. Matthews about his prospects at the company.
In June, 2011, Mr. Matthews resigned.
In August, 2011, he took a position with a new company.
In July, 2012, 13 months after Mr. Matthews left, Ocean Nutrition was sold for $540 million.
Pursuant to the LTIP, had he remained with Ocean Nutrition, Mr. Matthews’ portion of the proceeds would have been about $1.1 million.
Since Mr. Matthews was not actively employed, Ocean Nutrition denied him the LTIP payment.
Mr. Matthews sued the employer for wrongful dismissal. He claimed constructive dismissal, and sought damages for breach of his employment contract and the loss of the LTIP payment.
He alleged that the employer breached its duty toward him to act in good faith.
Regrettably, he did not pursue damages for breach of good faith, or damages for mental distress.
The trial judge found Mr. Matthews was constructively dismissed. Mr. Matthews was entitled to damages equal to the amount he would have earned had he remained employed over a 15 month notice period. That includes salary, benefits and the LTIP payment.
The trial judge found that had he not been constructively dismissed, Mr. Matthews would have been employed at the time of sale.
He awarded damages equivalent to what Mr. Matthews would have received under the LTIP.
Court of Appeal Decision
A majority of the Court of Appeal upheld that Mr. Matthews was constructively dismissed. It upheld his 15 month notice period. However, it allowed the employer’s appeal in part, holding that the trial judge erred in awarding damages pursuant to the LTIP when the plan expressly disentitled him from any payment. It set aside the award of $1.085 million.
Supreme Court of Canada Decision
The Supreme Court of Canada allowed Mr. Matthews’ appeal. It restored the trial judgment and awarded him his costs throughout.
Two aspects of the Court’s decision are particularly interesting: the approach to damages for loss of benefits; and the court’s comments on employers’ good faith obligations toward employees.
Notice Period Test
The Court clarified that assessing damages for benefits lost during the reasonable notice period involves two steps:
- Assessing the employee’s common law rights; and
- Determining whether any wording “unambiguously” alters the employee’s common law rights.
The common law requires employers to provide reasonable notice of dismissal. Not doing so leads to an award of damages in lieu of notice, whether or not good faith was present. The first stage involves assessing all benefits he or she would have received during the reasonable notice period.
Clauses attempting to remove an employee’s rights will be strictly interpreted against the employer.
This test applies to all forms of compensation: bonuses, pensions, commissions and other benefits.
Breach of Good faith
The Court summarized the “settled law” on employers’ duty of good faith:
…this is an occasion to re-affirm two important principles…. First, … the duty of honest performance — which … means simply that parties “must not lie [to] or otherwise knowingly mislead” their counterparty “about matters directly linked to the performance of the contract” — is applicable to employment contracts…. Second, given the four-year period of alleged dishonesty leading up to Mr. Matthews’ dismissal, I would also reiterate that when an employee alleges a breach of the duty to exercise good faith in the manner of dismissal … this means courts are able to examine a period of conduct that is not confined to the exact moment of termination…
Breaching the duty of good faith is a separate contractual breach.
One example is lying to an employee about the reasons for dismissal.
Compensation for the notice period does not speak to the duty of good faith. Damages for breach of good faith do.
Punitive damages could also be available in some circumstances.
Whether or not the employer provides adequate reasonable notice, employees may sue for a breach of the duty of good faith for additional damages over and above the notice period.
This decision also clarifies that in constructive dismissal cases, the employer’s conduct may be scrutinized over an extended period of time.
However, ongoing callous and insensitive conduct by employers is not limited to cases of constructive dismissal.
Outright dismissals may also be preceded by similar conduct which causes damage to the employee.
It would make sense to scrutinize an employer’s course of conduct in all dismissal cases, not merely cases of constructive dismissal.
The Court stopped short of finding that a broader duty of good faith exists throughout the entire employment contract, as it was not necessary to do so in this particular case.
However, certain statements in the decision may foreshadow that may be the direction of future decisions.
This is a modified version of a October 18, 2020 article appearing in online publications including the Kelowna Capital News. The content of this article is intended to provide very general thoughts and general information, not to provide legal advice. Advice from an experienced legal professional should be sought about your specific circumstances. We may be reached through our website at inspirelaw.ca.