Employer Bias In Proving Just Cause

Posted May 19, 2023 by

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When the predominant reason for terminating an employee is a bad faith motive, such as a bias or dislike to a particular employee, termination for cause may be difficult to prove. While a particular serious incident, or series of incidents, often constitute termination for cause, when taken into account with a long serving employee and evidence of employer bias, the courts may be inclined to find no cause exists.

In the recent Alberta Court of Appeal case of Baker v. Weyerhaeuser Limited, Mr. Baker, a mill supervisor with 14 years of service with Weyerhaeuser Limited (“Weyerhaeuser”), had an unblemished work record until the arrival of a new mill manager who took a dislike to Mr. Baker. After several subsequent work safety incidents, many of which Mr. Baker had received warnings, Weyerhaeuser ultimately dismissed Mr. Baker for cause. In particular, Mr. Baker admittedly made false notations regarding a small fire that had taken place at the workplace. Weyerhaeuser took the position that it had more than ample grounds for just cause given the cumulative effect of the misconduct Mr. Baker had shown and his “unsatisfactory” reaction to remedial coaching after some initial warnings.

Mr. Baker argued that he had excellent performance reviews leading up to the transfer of the new Mill Manager. At that point, Mr. Baker indicated that he did not get along with the new Mill Manager and things deteriorated from that point forward. The Mill Manager testified that there was no intention to terminate Mr. Baker prior to the small fire incident. However, the emails tendered into evidence suggested otherwise. One month prior to the fire, the Mill Manager wrote emails to others in the company indicating that Mr. Baker just wasn’t a good fit and no one wanted to work with him. At this point in time, once the Mill Manager learned of what Mr. Baker’s potential severance payout would be for a termination with cause (approximately $45,000.00), he created a plan that would essentially set Mr. Baker up for eventual termination with cause. Shortly after, the small fire occurred and Mr. Baker was terminated.

The trial judge found that the Mill Manager’s real reason for recommending termination after the small fire incident was that he viewed Mr. Baker as disrespectful of him. Mr. Baker did not treat him as “the boss”. Ultimately, the actions of the Mill Manager in terminating Mr. Baker were made in bad faith and out of proportion considering Mr. Baker’s long term employment. While the small fire was significant, it was generally appropriately handled by Mr. Baker on the mill floor.

The trial judge awarded Mr. Baker one year of notice but declined to award punitive damages. Weyerhaeuser appealed and the appeal was dismissed. The Court of Appeal found that the root cause of the termination of Mr. Baker was bad faith considering his long-time employment record. The Court of Appeal also upheld the year notice period.

Assessing whether your employer had just cause to dismiss you can be challenging. Cases like this one concerning Mr. Baker underscore the complexities that can arise in a wrongful dismissal case. If you have been dismissed for cause, contact Cashion Legal for a discussion of your case.

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