Bad days happen to everyone, and it’s not unnatural for someone to have such a bad day at work that they feel like quitting. In some cases, people might say, “I quit.” But as is often the case in the heat of the moment, time can sometimes lessen the feelings that lead to such rash decisions. Many people might understandably assume that quitting one’s job means the employer has no obligation to welcome them back to work should tempers cool, but that’s not always the case. A recent decision from the Alberta Court of Appeal highlights one situation where “I quit” didn’t actually mean “I quit.”
Dustup over cleaning leads to employee saying he quit
The employer operates an industrial cleaning operation that services clients in the oilfield industry. The employee started working there in 2014. The employer had advanced the employee funds to help his family move to Alberta from Ontario, some of which the employee had paid back by the time of the incident leading to trial. By 2017 he had been promoted to the position of field supervisor. The only discipline he had experienced was a written warning in 2016 after he failed to sign a work permit.
In September 2020, the employer was performing work at one of its plants and the employee was retained to perform some cleaning there. One of the tasks the employee was given was cleaning a large vessel’s interior. A debate had arisen amongst employees on the best process to follow and equipment to be used in such a job. The debate was partly fueled by the quick time the job had to be done.
The employee was working the night shift on that date and received instructions from someone who recommended a different method of cleaning the vessel. The employee sent a message to the day shift supervisor, asking for certain equipment to be brought to the site in the morning. However, when the morning arrived, the employer saw that the job still needed to be completed and expressed displeasure.
The conversation between the employee’s manager and the employee ended with the employee storming out of the trailer where the office was located and slamming the door. Neither party recalled the exchange’s exact words, but the employee said he had not been told he was suspended.
The employee then left in a work truck with some colleagues. The manager said the employee had driven away recklessly, including speeding, which the employee denied. One of the passengers in the truck testified that the employee had made a comment indicating that if there was one more incident, he would quit and return to Ontario with his family.
By this point, the employer had discussed things with the manager, neither of whom was aware that the employee had been directed to clean the vessel differently than originally understood. The employer told the manager the employee was not allowed back on the worksite.
The manager then sent the employee a text message stating,
“Your not required out here for night we are going to juggle some people around. This conversation is private. You are off for a week suspension. There will be some papers to sign with (Mark) in the office please drop off your truck and phone for this time. Thanks”
The manager testified that any decisions about the employee’s status in regard to suspension and termination would be held following his suspension.
When the employee returned to drop off the truck, only one employee (“LB”) was present. LB and the employee had differing versions of what happened then, with LB testifying that the employee was upset and said he quit. However, the employee’s version of the story was that he told LB he was upset and showed her the message. After their exchange, the employee collected personal belongings from the office and left the premises.
Four days later, in September, 21the employer issued the employee his Record of Employment (ROE). The ROE indicated that the employee had quit. On September 22, the employee sent the employer a text message stating,
“Thanks for the roe but there is one problem, I DID NOT QUIT MY JOB.
I have asked for a meeting With you and gene and garnet
You always said to come to you with any problems”
The employer did not respond to the text message, and no further communication took place until January 2021, when the employee reached out to ask for his T-4 and four weeks of pay in lieu of notice. The person who received the message said she understood he had quit and still owed the employer $4,000 for moving expenses. The employee said he had not quit, had already paid $2,000 back, and asked for it to be taken off his severance pay.
Did the employee quit?
The court first considered whether the text message from the employer (that was quoted earlier) constituted constructive dismissal. The court referred to a 2015 decision from the Supreme Court of Canada which provided an “exhaustive analysis” of constructive dismissal in the context of suspensions, one paragraph of which states,
“I would suggest that in most cases in which a breach of an employment contract results from an unauthorized administrative suspension, a finding that the suspension amounted to a substantial change is inevitable. If the employer is unable to show the suspension to be reasonable and justified, there is little chance, to my mind, that the employer could then turn around and say that a reasonable employee would not have felt that its unreasonable and unjustified acts evinced an intention no longer to be bound by the contract. Any exception to this rule would likely arise only if the unauthorized suspension was of particularly short duration.”
In this case, there was no written contract between the parties, so there could not have been a term of a contract about suspensions. The court concluded that in light of this, the suspension amounted to a unilateral change to the employment “contract.”
The next question the court had to ask was whether the change could be considered a substantial one which is essential to the contract, which required the court to ask whether the suspension was reasonable and justified, which the court determined it was not. This led the court to find the employee had been constructively dismissed.
The court then turned to whether the employee quit, citing case law that found an employee may utter comments indicating they quit when in reality, that is not their intention. The court found that if the employee quit, he did so in the heat of the moment and did so as a result of (rightfully) believing his suspension was unwarranted. In awarding the employee pay in lieu of notice, the court also ordered that the $2,000 he was said to have owed the employer not be deducted from his pay.
Let HMC Lawyers help you if you’ve been improperly reprimanded or terminated from your job
The employment law team at HMC Lawyers has over 130 years of cumulative experience helping employees and employers navigate a wide range of employment law matters, including workplace conduct and issues concerning wrongful dismissal. We regularly help clients resolve matters, including through the use of mediation and other methods of alternative dispute resolution, but are ready to represent clients in litigation where necessary. If you have questions about your rights in the workplace or discipline that you have been subject to, please don’t hesitate to reach us online or by phone at 1-800-480-3534. We look forward to talking to you.