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Dismissing an employee for just cause: Difficult but not impossible

Recent Alberta decision confirms 'Just cause is not a lost cause'
employment law
Giant earth moving heavy equipment in the Syncrude tar sands mining operations near Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2014. REUTERS/Todd Korol

By Stuart Rudner and Anique Dublin

Many Canadian judges are reluctant to find just cause for dismissal exists, as the consequences for employees are so harsh. However, the recent decision in the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench case, Belyea v. Syncrude, confirms that, as we often say, “just cause is not a lost cause.” An employee can be summarily dismissed where the circumstances warrant such a result.

In that case, Rock Belyea was employed by Syncrude Canada as a crane operator for 10 years. During his time at Syncrude, Belyea received positive evaluations and was considered a valuable employee. He also had a history of aggression at work.

In 2012, Belyea entered the lunch room and discovered that a junior employee was sitting in his favourite chair. He asked the employee to get up but the employee refused. An argument ensued, and in the course of the argument, Belyea threw a chain at the employee, hitting the employee’s hand and spilling his lunch.

Following the incident, Syncrude conducted a full investigation, which included:

  • hearing Belyea`s side of the story
  • interviewing multiple witnesses to the argument
  • allowing Belyea to review and respond to the complainant’s account.

The investigators determined that Belyea was not a credible witness and found that the incident occurred as described by the employee. They concluded Belyea breached Syncrude’s Treatment of Employees Policy pertaining to a physical act of violence.

Following the investigation, Syncrude held a meeting where Belyea was provided with another opportunity to comment on his conduct. However, he continued to maintain that he dropped the chain on the floor and that it did not hit the employee. He was not remorseful, and he refused to accept responsibility for his behaviour. As a result, Syncrude decided to terminate his employment for breach of the TOE Policy.

Consequently, Belyea brought a claim against Syncrude for wrongful dismissal. He argued that what happened was a minor incident and that the chain fell out of his hands onto the floor. He also argued that some of the witnesses for Syncrude wanted him fired and therefore blew the incident way out of proportion.

Decision

In deciding whether Syncrude properly terminated Belyea, the court considered the contextual approach as set out in the case of McKinley v BCTEL, 2001 SCC 38. Essentially, the court evaluated the nature and extent of the behaviour and all the surrounding circumstances. The court then decided whether, in light of the circumstances, dismissing Belyea was appropriate.

After considering the above principles, the court concluded that Syncrude’s decision to terminate Belyea was appropriate for the following reasons:

  • Belyea breached Syncrude’s TOE Policy against violence: The policy was clear and included threats of violence or attempted violence, so whether the chain actually hit the employee’s hand was not important.
  • Belyea was aware of the TOE Policy, as it was referred to in his letter of acceptance (which he signed) and thereafter, he received multiple training sessions on employee treatment and conflict management.
  • Belyea had been disciplined on more than one occasion for his aggressive behaviour towards co-workers.
  • Belyea refused to accept responsibility for his actions and he demonstrated no remorse.

Taken together, the court found that these factors justified a finding that Belyea`s behaviour “violated an essential condition of his employment contract and breached the trust necessary in his work relationship with Syncrude.”    

Takeaway

This case reinforces the importance of:

  • thorough workplace policies with clearly defined terms
  • ensuring that all employees are aware and properly trained on workplace policies
  • a properly conducted workplace investigation.

The case also confirms that in many cases, the employee’s response to the allegations can make the difference between a finding of just cause and a conclusion that the employee deserved another chance.

There are so many misconceptions in the area of just cause, which is the main reason Stuart Rudner wrote his book: You’re Fired! Just Cause for Dismissal in Canada, which contains an extensive discussion of the law and a searchable database of cases. While some people are cynical and believe that “no one can ever be fired in Canada”, the reality is that judges will find just cause where it is appropriate.

Anique Dublin is a lawyer at Rudner Law in Toronto.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Stuart Rudner

Stuart Rudner, Employment Lawyer and MediatorStuart Rudner is the founder of Rudner Law (RudnerLaw.ca), a firm specializing in Employment Law and Mediation. He can be reached at stuart@rudnerlaw.ca, (416) 864-8500 or (905) 209-6999, and you can follow on Twitter @RudnerLaw.
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