Just Cause or Wrongful Dismissal? The Case of Hucsko
When it comes to the dismissals, employers will have the option to dismiss an employee with just cause or without cause. When an employee is dismissed with just cause, the employer does not owe them any termination entitlements such as notice or pay in lieu of notice. Wrongful dismissals happen when a termination is done without proper notice or pay in lieu provided to the employee.
Just cause in Ontario normally stems from serious or repeated misconduct by the employee, such that the employment relationship suffers an irreparable breakdown. However, just cause is quite difficult to prove in court, and the recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice case, Hucsko v AO Smith Enterprises, 2020 ONSC 1346 [“Hucsko”], affirms this principle.
The Facts of the Case
Hucsko is a wrongful dismissal case in which the plaintiff employee was alleged to have made sexualized comments to a colleague, which the defendant employer investigated. After the investigation, the defendant asked the plaintiff to apologize to his colleague. The plaintiff maintained his colleague misunderstood his comments and refused to admit to any wrongdoing.
The defendant then dismissed the plaintiff for cause, alleging an irreparable breakdown in the employment relationship.
The judge determined that no just cause stemmed from the plaintiff’s refusal to apologize, and awarded the plaintiff $187,000.00 for 20 months of reasonable notice for the wrongful dismissal.
While the defendant had found the plaintiff had made inappropriate comments, it had not dismissed the plaintiff on the basis of those comments after the investigation.
Instead, the dismissal came after receiving a letter from the plaintiff’s counsel which made the offer of the alternate apology—an apology for the colleague misunderstanding his comments. Rather than discuss an acceptable apology, the defendant summarily dismissed the plaintiff. The plaintiff’s consultation with his lawyer was an important consideration for the judge.
After a contextual analysis, the judge found that while the defendant was entitled to dismiss any employee without cause, it was not entitled to dismiss the plaintiff for cause on the basis of the plaintiff’s non-apology. Such an action did not meet the high threshold of just cause.
Take Away for Employers
This case has affirmed the difficulty in proving just cause in dismissals. Employers should therefore be careful to dismiss for cause only where there is a clear written record of progressive discipline or an undeniably significant and serious instance of misconduct.
While a without-cause dismissal entitles the employee to notice or pay in lieu of notice, it can avoid a wrongful dismissal claim and a claim for additional damages.
Considering the difficulty in proving just cause, employers should consult with an employment lawyer before taking any steps to dismiss an employee.
If you are an employer who is seeking information about proper dismissals, or an employee who has been dismissed, our team of experienced workplace lawyers at Achkar Law can help. Contact us by phone toll-free at1 (800) 771-7882 or email us at [email protected] and we would be happy to assist.