A Saskatchewan employer did not have cause to fire a worker who had a relationship with a summer student that led to an altercation with her father, the Court of King’s Bench has ruled.
The worker, JK, was a shift supervisor at Meadow Lake Mechanical Pulp (MLM). He joined the company in 1992 and rose to a supervisory role by 2010. He was fired in May 2016 amidst of a swirl of personal and professional controversies.
The dismissal stemmed from his relationship with a 21-year-old summer student at MLM and daughter of his co-worker. MLM’s human resources department cited multiple reasons for his dismissal, including time theft, misconduct, and deteriorating job performance.
The termination letter
The letter, signed by the company’s HR manager and dated May 25, 2016, outlined the case for termination. It pointed to the relationship with the student and the fact “you did not disclose to company management when it began.”
The tension over the relationship led to an altercation on April 27, 2016, with the student’s father — who worked at MLM. Following that incident the company began an investigation which “uncovered several troubling facts,” the letter stated.
“First, we learned that on a regular basis, you and (the student) would engage in bow hunting for gophers on Company property during working hours,” it said. “When we put this to you during our investigation, you admitted to doing this maybe once or twice, but the weight of evidence from our investigation indicates that it occurred with some regularity.”
It noted that, as a team lead, JK was in a position of trust and authority.
“You are expected to lead by example and uphold company policies and rules, not flagrantly violate them with a subordinate employee. Further this behaviour constitutes time theft and is aggravated by the fact that you included another employee in this misconduct,” it said.
It also noted that JK “inappropriately interfered” with the student’s job application process by submitting a late applicant/crew request conflict and that he misrepresented his title in a return to work form.
Lastly, it said attendance and job performance had “deteriorated significantly in the past year.”
“Finally, your conduct during our investigation was deeply troubling. You were highly agitated during your investigation interview which caused us concern for the safety and well being of the Company’s employees,” it said. “Further, you did not appear to appreciate the seriousness of your misconduct or take any ownership of your actions. Equally, you demonstrated no indication of contrition or remorse.”
Taken together, the company said it had just cause to fire him.
At the time of dismissal, JK’s annual salary was $128,317.54. He sued for wrongful dismissal.
The court’s ruling
The court found that MLM’s response to the situation and the grounds for termination were disproportionate and not justified.
It highlighted that JK’s relationship with the summer student did not initially constitute a breach of company policy. It noted that calling it a “relationship” may be something of an overstatement. JK and the student did not discuss becoming a couple until December 2016, long after her summer term had ended. There was nothing to disclose, in the court’s view, either to MLM or his co-worker in the summer of 2016.
“If we accept that (JK) was spending too much time with (the summer student) during lunch breaks and work breaks, that would hardly meet the misconduct threshold for just cause immediate dismissal,” it said. “It may well trigger the five-step gradual disciplinary process, which likely would have led to a happier ending.”
Additionally, allegations of him engaging in activities like bow hunting during work hours were either exaggerated or commonplace among other employees.
It said “at no time” did the student go bow hunting for gophers during work hours, or any other time. JK did ask the GM at MLM if he could bow hunt some of the gophers that were ruining a family area the company had set aside on its grounds. The GM said yes, though he assumed the hunting would take place on JK’s own time, not company time.
When JK did go bow hunting, he couldn’t find any other gophers — and discovered that two fellow workers in a company truck with a rifle had been shooting gophers in the yard from the truck.
Moreover, the court noted that JK’s involvement in the student’s job application process and the alleged misrepresentation on his return to work form were not severe enough to warrant immediate dismissal. The lack of evidence for the claimed deterioration in JK’s job performance and attendance further weakened MLM’s case.
The court, therefore, concluded that he was wrongfully dismissed and entitled to damages. The court determined a reasonable notice period of 24 months — with “no hesitation” — taking into account his age, years of service, and the position he held.
It also tacked on $1,500 for moving costs, related to the fact JK had to move from Meadow Lake to Moose Jaw to find a new job. JK sought $8,000, but the court settled on a lower figure — noting counsel did not elicit any testimony from anyone on the moving costs.
The court also rejected a request for $20,000 in moral and bad-faith damages for MLM’s conduct both in the investigation and in the course of litigation.
“The employer was met with the detritus of a messy family squabble. It was reacting, and possibly overreacting, to a relationship issue,” the court said. “To be sure, I disagreed with a number of its conclusions, but at no time were MLM’s responses, even the ones I regarded as wrong, motivated by a specific animus against the plaintiff. There will be no damages for bad faith.”
Mitigation adjustments were made for his new employment at K + S Potash and Employment Insurance received post-termination, leading to a total damage award of $117,160.30.
It awarded JK costs under Column 1.
For more information, see Ketch v Meadow Lake Mechanical Pulp Ltd., 2023 SKKB 241 (CanLII)