I was just let go "without cause". What does this mean?

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Justin A. Villeneuve

Lawyer - Litigation

Prior to engaging in any litigious action, clients should have a grasp of not only their rights but those of the employer as well. What may not appear fair, maybe either contractually or legally legitimate. The term "without cause" is seen in most termination letters. There's a very clear reason for this.

The threshold for cause is high and, if the employer is unsuccessful in meeting that threshold, they then risk being subject to damages for wrongful termination inclusive of not only proper notice, but aggravated and punitive damages as well.

A prime example of this risk coming to fruition is seen in Ruston v. Keddco MFG. (2011) Ltd., 2019 ONCA 125. Ruston, former president of Keddco, was fired for cause. Keddco alleged that Ruston committed fraud. When Ruston indicated that he would be retaining legal counsel, Keddco advised him that, if he hired a Lawyer, it would counter-claim against him. They warned that the costs of litigation would be extreme to both parties.

Ruston ignored the threat and filed a claim against Keddco. Keddco followed-up on their promise and brought a counterclaim for $1.7 million.The lower court found that the allegations of fraud could not be proven. It was held that Ruston was wrongfully dismissed. He was awarded 19 months termination pay, in addition to $100,000 in punitive damages and $25,000 in moral damages. The costs award was $546,684. The total award, including payment in lieu of notice, was just below $1 million. The Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed the employer's appeal and withheld the lower courts ruling on these matters. Keddco's total losses would have far exceeded $1 million with their legal costs included.

Had Keddco simply terminated the employment without cause and relied on a properly drafted termination provision, Ruston's damages could have topped out at the Employment Standards Act entitlements. Without a contract, common law notice would have been subject to the soft cap of 24 months and early settlement would have been possible. Without the allegation of fraud and the subsequent counterclaim, Keddco's worst-case scenario would have likely been much better than the current end result.

This is an example of why employers are often advised to dismiss without cause, asserting the employer's right to do so and relying on properly drafted contract provisions to navigate the employees' entitlements upon termination.

So what does this mean for employees? Firstly, do not assume that your performance can no longer be factored into an award for termination pay. The employer can always argue "near cause" which has reduced awards in past decisions. Understand, however, that the most prevalent dispute in a without cause dismissal is the employee's entitlement, by contract and by law.

Employees who are terminated without cause, need to acknowledge that the employer has the right to do so. Nonetheless, they must do so while preserving your entitlements. Those entitlements should not be assessed by yourself or your employer. All aspects governing the employment relationship should be forwarded to a competent employment Lawyer. The employment Lawyer will indicate your entitlements and provide an honest opinion on the viability of disputing the package that was offered.

 

What does this mean for Employees and Employers?

 

Employees: Once terminated without cause, do not sign a full and final release without having a Lawyer review the employment relationship and confirm your actual entitlements. 

Employers: Asserting cause is a risky position to take. Cost-benefit might weigh in favour of dismissing the employee "without cause." The allegation of cause cannot be retracted. Counsel should be sought prior to alleging cause. 

Sources:

Ruston v. Keddco MFG. (2011) Ltd., 2019 ONCA 125 (CanLII)

Ruston v. Keddco Mfg. (2011) Ltd., 2018 ONSC 2919 (CanLII)

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