Monday, October 31, 2011

Back to Basics: A Practical Guide to Wrongful Dismissal Resolution

While there's a new wrongful dismissal case coming out of Ontario's Superior Court of Justice every few days or so, the truth is that the vast majority of dismissals get settled very quickly, often even before issuing a statement of claim.

This post isn't designed to help people see the process through themselves; both sides really do need lawyers, and for very compelling reasons.  I practice on both sides the fence, so I would encourage anyone finding themselves in this situation to contact me.  Rather, I want to give readers a sense of what to expect, to be more comfortable with the process.

Before Termination

Employers should consult a lawyer before terminating the employee in the first place.  (Indeed, you should consult a lawyer before even hiring, to get a good written contract in place.)  If you want to terminate for just cause, you need a legal opinion about it first.  Just cause is very difficult to make out, with risks of increased liabilities - sometimes significantly so - if you fail.  And, where there is no just cause, you need to know what your "notice" obligations may be.  (With a good written contract, drafted by a good employment lawyer and properly executed, these may be minimal.  Otherwise, you're looking at owing "reasonable" notice, which even a good employment lawyer will only be able to estimate and give you a range.)

Upon Termination

Employers:  There's a correct process for termination meetings.  Half of it is common sense (yet frequently not done), but a good portion of it might not occur to everyone in every case.  Have at least two people in the termination meeting, one taking notes.  Be professional.  Don't get dragged into an argument about the reasons for termination - have a script, preferably vetted by your lawyer, and refuse to be pulled off of it.  (In most cases, you won't even want to give any substantive reasons.)  Be discrete and sensitive.  There is a lot to be said about how to behave on terminations, and a lot of it depends on the nature of the workplace and the specific employee.  The termination meeting should be accompanied by the delivery of a termination letter, which will advise them about receipt of their last pay and statutory entitlements (which should be conditional on absolutely nothing), and requiring them to return all company property, reminding them of any ongoing confidentiality concerns, etc.  At the same time, there should be a second letter, marked "Without Prejudice", offering them something further in exchange for signing a full and final release.  (In the wake of Brito v. Canac Kitchens, there's a thought that more than the statutory minimums should be provided upon termination.  I don't think that's yet having any real impact on the standard practice, though.)

Employees:  When you are terminated, you will often receive an offer, conditional on you signing and returning it within x days.  At this stage, there are several things to note:

(1)  You are going to feel a range of negative emotions.  It's almost a grief response.  Anger, betrayal, despair, frustration...these are all perfectly normal.  It's one small part of the reason you will need a lawyer - it's going to be difficult for you to deal productively and professionally with your employer in light of these feelings.  (As a note to employers:  This is also the reason that working notice is seldom a good idea.)

(2)  Do not sign anything until you get legal advice.  Employers are seldom generous with their initial offers, and in the vast majority of cases there is some flexibility for movement on both monetary and non-monetary terms.  Sometimes, the entitlements are significantly more than what has been offered.  Even if you have a written contract limiting your entitlements, termination clauses are hard enough to enforce that it is often worth seeking advice on the enforceability of the contract.

(3)  Even if you have signed something without legal advice, it's still prudent to consult a lawyer.  I have seen some employers put a release to a dismissed employee in exchange for payment of the statutory minimum.  (In one case, the strict deadline was the day before stat minimums were due anyways.  I can't help but think that that was calculated.)  A release on such a basis will often be unenforceable.  The rule is that an employee should never assume, without proper legal advice, that the fact they signed something means they are bound to it.  (Of course, it is almost *never* a good idea to sign anything on the assumption that it will not be upheld by a court.)

(4)  If you can't meet with your lawyer until after the strict deadline is up, don't despair.  I've never seen an employer refuse to extend the timeframes of an offer upon request.  In most cases, they know that, if they get sued, they'll owe more than the contents of the offer anyways.  So they don't usually pull offers off the table.

(5)  In my years of experience, I have very seldom seen offers from employers that I could tell an employee was better than they would likely do in Court.  In the vast majority of cases, I respond with a demand letter for the client's full entitlements. (In the rare cases where an employer is being generous, unlike some lawyers, I do tell my client as much and try to respond reasonably.  If there's room for improvement with non-monetary terms, etc., I'll recommend the request, but an employer who is being generous knows that the offer is generous, and isn't going to move much on the monetary aspects of the settlement.)

(6)  If you haven't been asked to sign anything, it's often because you've only been given your statutory entitlements.  You likely still need to make a demand, and you'll need a lawyer to figure out what to demand.

Employer's Response to the Demand

There are myriad employer responses to a demand letter.  Know that most demand letters will frame the employee's entitlements generously.  Many employers will try to negotiate the demand down.  While there's not much certainty as to reasonable notice periods, there's enough clarity as to the appropriate ranges that both lawyers can tell their clients, "This is the range, and there's a good chance that the other lawyer is telling the other side the same thing."  So the employer tries to negotiate something at the low end of the range, the employee tries to negotiate something at the high end, and neither side really has much of a will to litigate when there are offers inside the range.

By contrast, many employers will completely reject demand letters at the outset.  Even large and sophisticated employers do so.  This is often strategic, and done with employees whose entitlements are fairly limited.  (Sadly, it often also factors in the employee's tolerance for stress.)  This approach is usually rationalized by the logic that, if you make the employee sue for his entitlements, some percentage of employees will simply not do so, and the increased costs and liabilities of dealing with the ones who do will be less than what is saved on the employees who walk away.  In these cases, an employee can often expect that the employer will come to the table promptly upon issuance of a statement of claim.  (Many prominent employer-side firms take the approach that, when served with a statement of claim, they immediately make a semi-reasonable offer to settle and ask for an indulgence so as not to be required to file a statement of defence while settlement discussions are ongoing.  If the offer to settle appears to be in good faith, then most employee-side counsel will recommend granting the indulgence, as they know that a settlement is imminent, and there's little to be gained through hardball at that point.)

The ones that go to trial, these days, usually have a fair bit of money at stake and a real fight about one of a handful of things, such as whether or not there is just cause, enforceability of the written contract, how to characterize one of the factors that defines the reasonable notice period, or a dispute about constructive dismissal.  Without some fundamental factual dispute underlying the calculation of the reasonable notice period or the entitlement to reasonable notice, the margins between what the employer might expect to have to pay and what the employee might expect to get are so small that the cost of litigation is prohibitive for both sides.  Even when there is a fairly fundamental dispute, if there isn't a lot of money at stake, both sides still know that the most cost-effective approach is through an early settlement.  What's a few months' notice for a minimum wage employee beside the amount of money it would cost to get to trial?

That being said, many employers will fight certain cases 'on principle':  Where there's a clear-cut case for cause, an employer isn't going to settle, because it sends the message to other employees that they can act badly then cash out.

It's always important to hire a lawyer who knows what they're doing, but that's especially important for low-value cases.  I've taken on clients whose cases I assessed at being mid four digits.  At a lawyer's hourly rate, it doesn't take long before that all gets eaten up in legal fees, so a lawyer on such a case really needs to be careful about how much time is being spent.  So far, in my practice I've been pretty good about being able to settle efficiently enough that my clients still get to keep most of their money.  On the other hand, I have seen lawyers (even boutique employment lawyers) go five digits into legal fees before even issuing a statement of claim, on files that were not high value.

That's why the choice in lawyers is important.  It is important to me to try to ensure that my client will be better off at the end of the day for having hired me, and if I don't think that's going to happen, I tell the client that.  I offer free consultations to dismissed employees in most cases (some exceptions apply), so I would encourage any dismissed employees to contact me immediately.


This blog is not intended to and does not provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.

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