Job responsibilities not part of employment contract: Court

Employee claimed new owner constructively dismissed him but court found there was no specification of job responsiblities in contract

A British Columbia company had the right to assign an employee new duties for the same pay when it acquired the employee’s existing employer, the B.C. Supreme Court has ruled.

Hugh Robertson, 61, joined Weldwood of Canada, a forestry company, in 1978. He began as a foreman in Houston, B.C., and transferred to Williams Lake, B.C., in 1988.

A few years later, Robertson’s job title changed but his duties remained the same. When his boss retired in 1998, there was a reorganization and Robertson took over some managerial responsibilities, though he wasn’t officially appointed to a new position, nor did he receive a raise.

In the summer of 2004, Weldwood was acquired by another forestry company, West Fraser. Several jobs were eliminated, including Robertson’s department. West Fraser told Robertson it would still like to keep him on, working on similar projects until he retired. They asked him if he would move, but Robertson wanted to stay in Williams Lake.

West Fraser officially took over on Jan. 1, 2005. Robertson’s managerial functions ended as his department was phased out, but his salary and benefits remained the same. He was upset two employees in his department were reassigned without his knowledge, but he didn’t complain about any of the changes.

By November 2005, Robertson felt his job had disappeared and thought if West Fraser wasn’t going to give him a defined role, they should offer him a severance package. In early 2006, Robertson sent a message to his boss that he was concerned over his lack of a role. His boss met with him, but he couldn’t offer a definite position to Robertson. Robertson raised the possibility of a severance package, but said he would consider any job as long as it was useful.

In December 2006, Robertson received the regular staff Christmas bonus, which was delivered to him by a manager he didn’t report to. He felt slighted by his own manager as well as the amount of the bonus, which was about one-half of his previous bonus. Robertson wrote to West Fraser management and said it seemed as if West Fraser wanted him to resign his position and retire. At a subsequent meeting, West Fraser reiterated it didn’t have a new position for him but wanted him to stay at he same job for the same salary. Robertson announced he would be leaving the company on March 9, 2007, claiming West Fraser constructively dismissed him by unilaterally making fundamental changes to his employment he had with Weldwood.

The court found Robertson wasn’t hired by Weldwood to perform a specific task or fill a specific position and didn’t have a written contract. He remained at the same pay level when his department was restructured and eventually eliminated by West Fraser, and he did the same work for West Fraser after the acquisition. The court also found at no time did he complain about changes to the reporting structure or responsibilities of his job.

“There was no term in Mr. Robertson’s employment contract requiring West Fraser to reassign him to a particular job that (he) may have found more rewarding, or reassign him at all,” the court said. “Although Mr. Robertson apparently felt left out and unjustifiably ignored, the reasonable conclusion to draw was that, since no one had communicated otherwise, he would remain where he was, working on projects, indefinitely.”

The court ruled Robertson’s employment contract allowed his employer to assign, within reason, different or new duties while he remained at the same salary and position level as well as determine the level of bonus it doled out. Robertson also didn’t complain when changes were made, so he could not claim a cumulative effect of the various changes on him. See Robertson v. West Fraser Timber Co., 2009 CarswellBC 1179 (B.C. S.C.).

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