The High Threshold of a Just Cause Dismissal
It is well-known that an employer may dismiss an employee for just cause, but where it does so, the employer has the burden to demonstrate it had just cause to dismiss the employee. A recent Ontario decision provides another example where the employer was unable to meet the high threshold of a just cause dismissal after it terminated a long-service employee due to his insubordination.
In Czerniawski v. Corma Inc., 2021 ONSC 1514, Mr. Czerniawski was a good worker with no performance issues who worked for his employer for 19 years as an assembler.
On March 7, 2019, Mr. Czerniawski was involved in a mutually heated exchange with his coworker, which eventually resulted in his termination for cause.
The Court found that Mr. Czerniawski was involved in a verbal dispute with a coworker, after which, a supervisor asked Mr. Czerniawski to leave the workplace. Mr. Czerniawski then met with the supervisor and a manager where he asked about what he was being accused of but was only told that an investigation will occur. After this meeting, Mr. Czerniawski returned to his workstation. He was told to leave but did not do so, so the police were eventually called to escort him out. Mr. Czerniawski calmly left the workplace and was told not to return until advised to do so.
About 4 days later, Mr. Czerniawski attended the reception area of his workplace to drop off a letter outlining his version of the incident, as he had not been interviewed as part of the employer’s investigation.
At the conclusion of the employer’s investigation, during which Mr. Czerniawski was not interviewed, the employer concluded it had just cause to terminate Mr. Czerniawski. The employer provided him with a termination letter stating he was terminated given his attitude, insubordination, conduct, and the effect on other members of the workplace.
The Court’s Decision
The Court reiterated that a contextual approach is required in determining whether an employee’s misconduct justifies dismissal for cause. Given the serious consequences of a for-cause dismissal whereby the employee is not entitled to notice prior to termination or pay in lieu of notice, it is critical that the employer’s response is proportional to the employee’s misconduct.
The Court found that Mr. Czerniawski’s termination for cause was not justified and awarded him 19 months’ pay in lieu of notice. Factors considered included his long-term service, 54 years of age, and technically skilled nature of his position.
In deciding that Mr. Czerniawski’s termination for cause was not justified, the court noted that in his 19 years of employment, there was no prior history of discipline, threats, or violence and that the March 7, 2019 incident was limited to a verbal altercation.
Although the court acknowledged that Mr. Czerniawski should have left the workplace when asked to do so, it also noted that the reason he did not leave was that Mr. Czerniawski was requesting information on the incidents for which he was being sent home. Given that the employer did not provide Mr. Czerniawski with the opportunity to respond to the allegations or participate in the investigation, the court concluded that termination for cause was not proportional to the misconduct. Rather, progressive discipline such as a disciplinary letter or suspension would have been more appropriate.
Mr. Czerniawski was also seeking aggravated and punitive damages, which the Court declined to award, stating:
 There was no evidence that the defendant withheld a letter of employment after it was requested. There was also no evidence that the plaintiff requested his tools. I have found that the defendant should have interviewed the plaintiff to hear his side of the story. However, this failure is less egregious than it otherwise might have been in circumstances where the plaintiff returned to the workplace, having been told not to do so, and delivered a letter in which he took no responsibility for his part in the events of March 7, 2019. [emphasis added].
When conducting a workplace investigation, employers should ensure that the involved employee is aware of the allegations against him or her and provided with an opportunity to respond. Employers should also consider implementing progressive discipline protocols within their organization, which may assist in meeting the threshold of a just cause dismissal.
This case is also a good reminder that termination for cause remains a high threshold, and that proportionality is important. As such, an employer should consider the employee’s misconduct, history, and the contextual circumstances before imposing sanctions.
If you are an employer who requires assistance with a workplace investigation or have questions pertaining to meeting the threshold of a just cause dismissal, or an employee who believes you’ve been wrongfully dismissed, our team of experienced workplace lawyers at Achkar Law can help.