This is the first of a series of blog posts about so-called “Just Cause” terminations. In this blog, I’m going to explain the basic concept of “Just Cause” terminations, so let’s go…
Just Cause Termination
Let’s start off with a basic principle: an employee who has been hired for an indefinite duration is entitled to reasonable notice (based on judge made law) or notice (based on the Employment Standards Act, 2000) before they can be terminated. So an employer must either provide an employee with the requisite notice or payment in lieu of and equivalent to such notice in order to fulfill their legal obligation.
“Just Cause” terminations are an exception to this basic principle of giving working notice or payment in lieu of notice. And this is allowed because there are certain reasons that exist which would allow the employer to terminate the employee IMMEDIATELY. In essence: the employee’s conduct / behaviour must be so bad that it is inconsistent with their employment duties and equivalent to a breach of the obligations owed to the employer.
So what are the grounds that exist that could warrant a Just Cause termination? Well, there are many. And Courts, over time, have started to categorize some of the grounds. In Port Arthur Shipbuilding Co. v. Arthurs,  2 O.R. 49 the dissenting reasons of Justice Schroeder of the Ontario Court of Appeal included the following statement (which helps to summarize some of those categories):
11 If an employee has been guilty of serious misconduct, habitual neglect of duty, incompetence, or conduct incompatible with his duties, or prejudicial to the employer’s business, or if he has been guilty of wilful disobedience to the employer’s orders in a matter of substance, the law recognizes the employer’s right summarily to dismiss the delinquent employee.
And in the more recent case of Partridge v. Botony Dental Corporation, 2015 ONSC 343, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice reiterated that definition of “Just Cause” as follows:
How does the law define “just cause”? In H. Levitt, The Law of Dismissal in Canada, 3rd ed., (Toronto: Canada Law Book, 2003), at p. 6-3, the author attempts to summarize what constitutes cause for discharge, as follows:
The court has to apply general principles and past decisions to each case as it arises in order to determine whether or not an employee’s termination is justified. The usual definition of just cause is as follows: “…misconduct inconsistent with the fulfilment of the express or implied conditions of service will justify dismissal”. Although there is no airtight evidence of what constitutes cause for discharge, the definition relied on most is:
If an employee has been guilty of serious misconduct, habitual neglect of duty, incompetence, or conduct incompatible with his duties or prejudicial to the employer’s business, or if he has been guilty of wilful disobedience to the employer’s orders in a matter of substance, the law recognizes the employer’s right summarily to dismiss the delinquent employee.
We are only going to look at a few throughout the next series of blogs to give you a taste of what COULD constitute a Just Cause termination.
Importantly: each case needs to be determined on its own merits. What may be a serious misconduct in one scenario might only be trivial in another. This is a question of fact that a Court must determine in light of all the relevant evidence. And the employer’s opinion is not the be all and end all of this determination; the Court is the final arbiter and uses a reasonable / objective standard when assessing all of the facts.
If the Court determines that there are sufficient grounds to warrant a Just Cause termination, then the employer is entitled to terminate the employee without reasonable notice based on the common law. If a Just Cause termination was not warranted, then damages for wrongful dismissal may be awarded, as well as aggravated or punitive damages where the employer’s conduct in terminating the employee was reprehensible.
In the next blog, we’ll discuss some of the nuances surrounding Just Cause terminations – including what happens if an employer knows of and condones behaviour that constitutes grounds for a Just Cause termination? Who is obligated to prove that the Just Cause termination was warranted / unwarranted? And what’s the standard that they need to prove it?
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