Last year, the Ontario Court of Appeal in Waksdale v. Swegon North America Inc., 2020 ONCA 391, slapped employers across the face causing an upheaval in employment law, resulting in the possibility that your employment contract might no longer be enforceable. Specifically, employers may be required to review and revise their termination provisions with their employees, otherwise, upon termination, the employer may find themselves paying a lot more to the employee than anticipated.
In Waksdale, the employer terminated Mr. Waksdale “without cause”. Pursuant to his employment agreement with the employer, the termination clause provided that the employer only had to pay him the minimum statutory entitlement set out in the Employment Standards Act. Mr. Waksdale was only employed for eight (8) months, thus under the ESA, he was only entitled to one (1) week pay-in-lieu of notice. Rather than accept this, Mr. Waksdale brought an action against his employer for six (6) months pay-in-lieu of notice under common law.
At trial, counsel for Mr. Waksdale argued that the termination clause was void, and thus the employment contract was unenforceable. Specifically, that a separate “termination for just cause” clause elsewhere in the employment agreement contravened Regulation 288/01 of the ESA Regulations. The Ontario Court of Appeal agreed and held that the wording in the “termination for just cause” section was inconsistent with the ESA Regulation, and that alone voided the remaining termination provisions in the employment contract.
“That’s Fine, I have a Severability Clause” No, apparently it is not fine. Despite the employment agreement in Waksdale having a severability clause, the Court of Appeal declined to apply it since it would not have any effect on a contract term which was void by statute.
What Is Just Cause Then?
The Courts have held that “just cause” includes actions where an employer can terminate an employee without paying reasonable notice at common law. These include actions by the employee such as dishonest conduct, insubordination, violence, sexual harassment, harassment, repeated breached of employee policies etc. However, even though the employee is not entitled to common law reasonable notice, they still entitled to be paid ESA notice and severance.
Employers may only terminate an employee without pay where the employee has been guilty of, “wilful misconduct, disobedience or wilful neglect of duty that is not trivial and has not been condoned by the employer.” In order for your employment agreement to be enforceable, it must explicitly distinguish between termination for “just cause” and termination for “wilful misconduct, disobedience or wilful neglect of duty that is not trivial and has not been condoned by the employer.” Because of the decision in Waksdale, your “termination without cause” clause may also be unenforceable, and that the termination provisions in an employment agreement must be read as a whole to determine whether it violates the ESA, rather than on a piecemeal basis.
Revising Your Employment Agreements
As a result of the decision in Waksdale, as an employer, you should consider immediately reviewing your existing employment agreements to ensure that they are in compliance with the ESA.
In the event that the employment agreement violates the ESA, you should consider entering into a new employment agreement with an enforceable termination clause. However, you must always remember that if you are amending the employment agreement, you must offer fresh consideration such as pay increase, bonus, promotions, additional vacation time, or some other benefit to the employee.