Terminating an employee for “just cause” can be a difficult for employers to pursue. An employee terminated for just cause faces harsh consequences, such as losing pay in lieu of notice. A wrongful dismissal suit from a terminated employee may result in a finding that there was no just cause for the dismissal, leaving the employer on the hook for notice. A recent decision from the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench highlighted what an employer must do to successfully defend a just cause termination.
A violent act in the lunchroom
The employee had worked as a crane operator for the employer for ten years leading up to his termination. On the day of the incident that resulting in the employee’s termination, he and a junior co-worker got into an argument over a chair in the employer’s lunch room. The employee either dropped or threw a chain on the co-worker’s hand, resulting in his food being spilled.
The employer launched an investigation into the incident. They listened to the employee’s version of events, interviewed witnesses, and allowed the employee to review witness statements. The employer found the employee to have poor credibility as a witness and determined the incident happened as described by the co-worker, who described the employer throwing the chain at his hand.
The employer met with the employee following the conclusion of the investigation. The employee was provided with an opportunity to comment on his conduct, but he stuck to his story that he dropped the chain and that it did not his co-worker. The employer terminated the employee at the end of the meeting for breaching the Treatment of Employees Policy.
The wrongful dismissal claim
The employee brought a claim against the employer for wrongful dismissal. He claimed that whatever happened was a minor incident, and that the chain fell while he was kneeling. He said some food spilled, at which time he cleaned it up. He also added that some of his co-workers wanted to see him fired and may have conspired against him.
The co-worker’s story was that the employee approached him and told him to get up from a chair he was sitting and eating in. His testimony described the employee asking him to leave. When the co-worker didn’t get up he said “That’s when he threw the chain down. I saw his hand come down over my face when he threw the chain. The chain fell in my container and wrapped around my right hand. He threw it hard enough to break the container. My lunch spilled all over my lap and all over the floor. The chain fell to the floor as well. The majority of the chain fell in my container, and a piece of it hit my hand. I don’t really remember I didn’t watch it, but it hit me hard enough to hurt.”
Evaluating a termination for just cause
The court then turned to a 2001 decision from the Supreme Court of Canada which addresses what a court must consider in a wrongful dismissal case. A court must consider the nature and extent of the behavior, the surrounding circumstances, and in light of both, whether dismissal was appropriate.
The court ultimately believed the co-worker’s version of events, finding the employee breached the employer’s policy against workplace violence. The policy was found to be clear, and the employee was found to have been aware of the policy. The employee also had a history of discipline relating to aggressive behavior. Finally, the employee refused to accept responsibility for his actions, demonstrating no remorse.
In light of the circumstances, the court found that the employer satisfied their onus of showing the employee was terminated for just cause.
HMC Lawyers represents both employees and employers in all types of employment law matters, including cases of wrongful dismissal. We work with employers to draft clear policies with the aim of avoiding conflict and litigation in the future. We work with employers before a termination is made in order to ensure the correct steps have been taken leading up to the termination. We also work with employees who have been victims of wrongful dismissal, helping them with the guidance they need to protect themselves and their future. If you are an employee or an employee in need of legal advice, please contact us online or call us at 403-269-7220 to see how we can help you today.