Employment severed, but who held the knife?

Employee raised subject of layoffs and severence but claimed manager wanted to fire her

This instalment of You Make the Call features an employee who said she was fired but the employer said she quit.

Corrine Trottier was the health director for Duncan’s First Nation (DFN), a community in northern Alberta. Trottier managed DFN’s health centre and provided health services to the community.

Trottier got along well with DFN’s chief but had a difficult relationship with the band manager from the time she started the job in May 2009. Trottier was aggressive in planning and the band manager complained that she wasn’t following instructions and “everything has to happen your way.” She received a letter in November 2009 about unprofessional conduct following a mixup over use of the medical van, which she saw as disciplinary and made her feel as if the band manager was looking to fire her.

Another letter in April 2010 chastised Trottier for arranging a payment plan with Health Canada before it was approved by the band council. Two more letters followed in June and July, which she felt implied she wasn’t doing her job.

In August, there was an incident where a co-worker threatened to get rid of Trottier. Trottier took a few days off with pay because she felt scared.

Trottier requested a meeting with the chief, where she explained her concerns about an unsafe workplace. She asked for three months severance and a layoff. The chief replied that he would have to discuss it with the council and was under the impression she was resigning her position. Trottier said she didn’t want to quit and wanted another way to “leave nicely.”

A few days later, on Aug. 30, the band manager gave Trottier a letter rejecting her request for severance pay but accepting her resignation. The letter also stated that “as you are quitting, we are entitled to two weeks’ notice. In lieu of this, it was decided to award you three weeks’ severance pay.”

Trottier told the manager she hadn’t quit but the manager replied “Yes, you did.” Trottier believed she had been fired. On Aug. 31 she wrote the band manager to say she did not resign and only met with the chief to discuss her unsafe work environment and possible solutions. She indicated she believed she had been terminated without cause.

Trottier went to the Labour Program to try to get her job back, claiming she had received no warnings or discipline. However, the band manager claimed there was no unsafe environment and she was guilty of insubordination and failure to follow instructions, which was why her resignation was quickly accepted.

You Make the Call

Was Trottier unjustly terminated?
Did Trottier resign?

If you said Trottier resigned, you’re right. The adjudicator found that it was clear Trottier wanted to leave DFN. Trottier requested the meeting with the chief, who didn’t know what it was about, and brought up the subject of a “layoff” she was discussing a way to end the employment relationship.

The adjudicator also found that Trottier didn’t explain that she didn’t intend to quit when she was given the letter accepting her resignation, which made no mention of termination. When she stated she didn’t quit and the manager replied that she did, she didn’t ask for her job back or try to clear up the misunderstanding. During the hearing, the chief testified that he would have given Trottier her job back had she asked.

The adjudicator noted that Trottier asked for a layoff — a temporary unpaid situation — with the chief but asked for severance, which is permanent.

“It would be a normal conclusion for someone to reach, in the face of a request for severance that the requester wanted to quit or resign and be paid out,” said the adjudicator.

The adjudicator also said that Trottier’s Aug. 31 letter to the manager didn’t ask for her job back. Her next communication was asking for her record of employment, which was “more evidence Ms. Trottier wanted to leave,” said the adjudicator.

The arbitrator found Trottier did not prove she was dismissed and she had, in fact, resigned. See Trottier v. Duncan’s First Nation, 2011 CarswellNat 3573 (Can. Lab. Code Adj.).

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