Home Employment Contracts Worker on 18-month contract, fired after six weeks for harsh wording in email, awarded more than $80,000

Worker on 18-month contract, fired after six weeks for harsh wording in email, awarded more than $80,000

by HR Law Canada

A fixed-term contract worker, hired for 18 months but terminated after six weeks, has been awarded more than $80,000 — the value of the full term of the contract — plus costs in a wrongful dismissal claim.

The Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled in favor of KL in the action against her former employer, Gisborne Holdings Ltd. KL was hired on the 18-month contract as a departmental administrator to fill in for the full-time worker who was on a parental leave.

The dispute centered around an email KL sent to Gisborne’s human resources manager, IG, which was perceived as having an inappropriate tone and content. KL contended she was dismissed without cause, while Gisborne argued the email led to an irreparable breakdown in the employment relationship and justified her termination.

The contract

The court, however, disagreed with Gisborne’s position. It found that the employment contract was for a fixed term and did not include provisions for termination without cause.

The contract stated that it ran from May 2, 2022, to Oct. 27, 2023. It included compensation of $25.95 per hour, inclusive of in lieu benefits. It also contained a $5,000 completion bonus to be paid on Oct. 27, 2023, or “upon layoff, whichever occurs first. No payment (partial or otherwise) is made if there is a quit or termination for cause.”

The email

In an email that became the focal point of her termination dispute with Gisborne, KL addressed several issues related to her employment. Initially, she clarified her understanding that a meeting held on June 30 was not disciplinary.

She acknowledged being “testy” in a prior conversation with a client and expressed concern that her manager might have accepted the client’s version of events without fully understanding her side.

KL challenged her manager’s claim that a meeting with the client’s senior management was held to discuss her communication, suspecting this to be misleading. She also refuted the implication that she was responsible for Gisborne’s difficulties with the client, pointing out other unrelated issues.

Furthermore, KL expressed surprise about concerns regarding her communication style, which were raised for the first time at the June 30 meeting. She showed willingness to adapt to her manager’s directive to change her communication approach from phone to email.

KL requested a discussion about her compensation, citing additional duties assigned to her that were not part of her original job description, viewing this as a substantial change in her role. She agreed to change her work hours as requested by Gisborne but declined to sign a revised employment contract due to discrepancies in the dates and pending discussions about her compensation.

In her email, KL emphasized the importance of mutual courtesy, honesty, and accountability and expressed her commitment to positive and professional working relationships. The email, sent only to Gisborne’s HR manager, was considered professionally worded by both the HR manager and the court.

However, when HR shared the email with her manager, that manager felt it was “borderline insubordinate” and interpreted it as an accusation of dishonesty. The email included strong criticisms of the manager’s actions and seemed to represent a shift from the accountability KL had shown in the June 30 meeting. Despite this, the court found the email’s content and her approach — while direct and strongly worded — to be reasonable and professional.

Contextual analysis

Justice Lamers examined the case through a contextual analysis, as prescribed in McKinley v. BC Tel by the Supreme Court of Canada, focusing on the nature and extent of the alleged misconduct, surrounding circumstances, and whether dismissal was a proportionate response.

The judge concluded that dismissal for cause was not a proportional response to the email and that Gisborne failed to consider alternative disciplinary measures.

Additionally, the court found that Gisborne’s fixed-term employment contract with KL did not authorize termination of her employment without cause. The “Completion Bonus” clause in the contract, which Gisborne cited as justification for termination without cause, was interpreted as not providing such authorization.

KL sought damages for the amount she would have earned if she had completed the full term of the employment contract, plus punitive damages for the manner of her dismissal and the baseless allegation of cause.

The court awarded her $81,100 in damages, equivalent to the earnings she would have received for the remainder of her contract, rejecting her claim for punitive damages.

“Gisborne was not successful in proving cause to terminate, but maintaining its position through to trial cannot be described as vindictive or reprehensible in this case,” the court said. “I find no ‘marked departure from decent behaviour’ that would justify an award of punitive damages.”

For more information, see Lefebvre v Gisborne Holdings Ltd., 2023 BCSC 2231 (CanLII)

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