Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ontario Employment Law: Summary Judgment In Wrongful Dismissal Actions

In Thorne v. The Hudson Bay Company, a case decided September 21, 2011, the Plaintiff, a 37.5 year employee who had been dismissed without just cause sued for wrongful dismissal after receiving a bare-bones severance package that was limited to her Employment Standard Act minimums.

The Plaintiff, an Allocation Associate,  moved for summary judgment, arguing that since there were few factual issues which were contentious between the parties, the judge could rule on the period of reasonable notice she was owed "without the need for the forensic machinery of a trial".

Based on consideration of the legally relevant factors, the Defendant employer took the position that she was owed 12-16 months of pay in lieu of notice. Considering the same factors, the Plaintiff employee took the position she was owed 24-30 months, a very divergent position indeed.

Under Rule 20.04 of the Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment motions are appropriate where the court is satisfied that there is "no genuine issue requiring a trial."

In the affidavits filed by the parties upon the motion, they took starkly contrasting views on the character of the Plaintiff's employment. While she did not have a supervisory function, the Plaintiff claimed that her job was far from entry-level and clerical. She, for example, provided operational support to the high volume merchandise industry which required a solid grasp of the employer's business. The Defendant argued that the Plaintiff's job was clerical, and stated she merely produced purchase orders.

Campbell J. held that a trial would be required to resolve the disagreement:
Having carefully examined the evidence that has been provided by the parties on this issue, it is apparent that they view the nature of the plaintiff’s job very differently. Their disagreement on this issue is not just a matter of the appropriate legal characterization of the job, but rather extends to the nature and details of the responsibilities performed by the plaintiff. The evidence filed by the parties on this motion, none of which has yet been subjected to cross-examination, is in stark conflict. In my opinion, it is simply not possible to fairly and appropriately resolve this important issue without the machinery of a trial. 
Faced with this fundamentally conflicting evidentiary record it is simply not possible to resolve this important factual dispute without the forensic machinery of a trial. Without hearing viva voce testimony from these witnesses as to their understanding of the specific details of the plaintiff’s job responsibilities, and being able to assess their credibility and the reliability of their evidence, and seeing the impact of cross-examination, there is simply no fair and accurate way of resolving the dispute between the parties on this important issue.
Hence, Justice Campbell concluded that in all the circumstances there was a genuine issue for trial given that character of employment remains a relevant factor in the determination of reasonable notice:
I appreciate that the court is entitled to assume that the parties have put forward their best evidence on the summary judgment motion and that, if the case were to go to trial, no additional evidence would be presented. See: Rogers Cable TV Ltd v. 373041 Ontario Ltd., 1994 CanLII 7367 (ON SC), (1994), 22 O.R. (3d) 25 (Gen.Div) at para. 4; Bluestone v. Enroute Restaurants 1994 CanLII 814 (ON CA), (1994), 18 O.R. (3d) 481 (C.A.) at para. 30; Dawson v. Rexcraft Storage & Warehouse Inc. 1998 CanLII 4831 (ON CA), (1998), 164 D.L.R. (4th) 257 (Ont.C.A.) at para. 17. But in some cases, like the present one, that assumption is of little assistance in actually resolving the factual dispute between the parties, as the court is limited to paper review of the evidence provided by the parties, without greater explanation, and wholly untested by cross-examination.
As an aside, for those judges and academic who have doubted the importance of character of employment in the determination of reasonable notice, Justice Campbell had this to say:
. . . it cannot be said that the resolution of this factual issue is of no importance to the outcome of this case. There are authorities which suggest that the character of the employee’s employment may be “a factor of declining relative importance” in the overall analysis of all of the Bardal factors. See: Di Tomaso v. Crown Metal Packaging Canada LP, 2011 ONCA 469 (CanLII), 2011 ONCA 469, at para.22-29; Medis Health and Pharmaceutical Services Inc. v. Bramble 1999 CanLII 13124 (NB CA), (1999), 175 D.L.R. (4th) 385 (N.B.C.A.) at para. 64; Vibert v. Paulin 2008 NBCA 23 (CanLII), (2008), 291 D.L.R. (4th) 302 (N.B.C.A.). Nevertheless, unless and until the governing legal standard for determining “reasonable notice” is changed in a more fundamental way, the character of the employment of the employee will properly remain a factor that must be taken into account in an appropriately “holistic review” of all of the Bardal factors. The fact that the parties in this case have devoted so much energy to producing evidence on this issue demonstrates their own appreciation of this legal reality.
When it comes to what he himself refers to as the "controversial scope of summary judgment motions", there is no doubt that Justice Campbell's reasons for decision raise as many questions as they do answers.
- Robert Tanha, Toronto

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