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Another One Bites the Dust…Court of Appeal Strikes Down Termination Provision

At this point, most employers know that termination provisions must be carefully drafted to ensure that they provide the minimum notice requirements for termination as set out in the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (the “ESA”).  This applies to termination without cause provisions, as well as termination for cause provisions. 

Under the ESA, the standard for terminating an employee for cause is “willful misconduct.”  Conduct which permits the employer to terminate an employee “for cause” under the common law may not meet the statutory standard of willful misconduct.  In such a case, the employer is required to pay the employee their minimum ESA entitlements.  A termination provision which does not address this issue will be unenforceable.   

In a recent decision, the Ontario Court of Appeal has found that where an employment agreement has a “for cause” termination provision which violates the ESA and “without cause provision” which complies with the ESA, both provisions will be struck down as unenforceable.  This is the case even if the employee is being terminated “without cause” and even in the face of a severability clause. 

In Waksdale v. Swegon North America, the court examined an employment contract which had a termination “for cause” provision and a termination “without cause” provision in two separate paragraphs.  The termination “without cause” provision complied with the ESA and was agreed to be enforceable.  It was conceded that the termination “for cause” provision violated the ESA and was unenforceable  

Mr. Waksdale was terminated without cause but argued that because the “for cause” provision breached the terms of the ESA, this rendered both termination provisions unenforceable.  The Court of Appeal agreed.  The court found that the provisions must be read as a whole and that it is “irrelevant whether the termination provisions are found one place in the agreement or separated, or whether the provisions are by their terms otherwise linked.”   

What does this mean for employers?  Now is the time to review and update your employment agreements.  Even if your termination provisions were drafted by an experienced lawyer, the wording used may be unenforceable.  Many employment agreements currently in use have a “for cause” termination provision which does not comply with the ESA.  This may now result in the termination “without cause” provision also being unenforceable.   

What does it mean for employees?  An employment agreement must be interpreted as a whole and not on a piecemeal basis.  If you are terminated and are subject to the terms of an employment agreement, we strongly recommend that you have the entire agreement reviewed by legal counsel to confirm whether it complies with the ESA.