Ontario court deflates worker’s wrongful dismissal claim

Employee should have accepted offer to come back to work after employer realized mistake: Court

An Ontario worker should have accepted a job offer from the employer who wrongfully dismissed him two weeks earlier, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has ruled.

Earl Chevalier worked at Speedy Muffler automotive service centres for 32 years, and then became an employee of Active Tire when it acquired several of Speedy’s service centres in 2007. At the time of the acquisition, Chevalier was a service centre manager and his service time was assumed by the new owners. When Active Tire took control, Chevalier and other managers entered into new employment agreements that included Active Tire’s “Steps to Success” manual. Chevalier’s employment agreement also stated that Active Tire could change his duties and location unilaterally, but Active would not transfer anyone greater than 50 km from home without their agreement.

Chafing under new management

Chevalier continued to work as a manager at a service centre in Niagara Falls, Ont., for a few months. However, the location’s financial results weren’t to Active Tire’s satisfaction, and the company felt Chevalier was having difficulty with the “Steps to Success” procedures. In November 2007, Chevalier was assigned to another store in the area to work with a more successful manager.

Chevalier was unhappy with the move but went along with it. However, he felt coaching efforts by his supervisor and the other manager developed into an escalating pattern of harassment, making him feel humiliated.

In April 2008, the new location was franchised and Chevalier was offered a position at a corporate store in Brampton, Ont. Since this store was more than 50 km away, Active Tire offered Chevalier the use of a company car and would pay him for travel time. After a few days of thinking about the offer, Chevalier turned it down and he was placed at a service centre in nearby St. Catherines, Ont.

A month later, Chevalier was summoned to the head office in Toronto, where he discussed disappointing financial results at the stores he had managed and incidents with “mystery shoppers” where he didn’t follow customer service policies. The meeting involved an “unpleasant, heated exchanged” between Chevalier and Active Tire’s general manager.

In June 2008, Chevalier was assigned to be a “mystery shopper,” a position where he would drive to various Active Tire locations and test their service. He did this for two weeks, and was then assigned to manage a Toronto service centre. He drove to and from the centre in a company car on company time. Chevalier didn’t object to this assignment because, he claimed, he didn’t want to cause more stress for himself.

In August, Active Tire transferred Chevalier back to the Niagara Falls location to be part of a restructuring of that business. However, a month later Chevalier and the other manager received a written reprimand for an order that wasn’t processed electronically. Shortly thereafter, business at the location decreased dramatically and Active Tire decided to lay off Chevalier and keep the other manager, as the level of sales made two managers unnecessary.

Laid off, then invited back

On Oct. 28, 2008, Active Tire notified Chevalier of his layoff. On Nov. 13, Chevalier began an action for wrongful dismissal and a few days later Active Tire called him back to work, stating it had been mistaken that it could lay him off and apologized. Chevalier refused the offer to return to work.

The court found that Chevalier’s many years of service with Speedy likely made it difficult to embrace Active Tire’s new way of doing things, and this contributed to some strained relations with his superiors. However, Active Tire’s techniques of coaching him and transferring him to different locations and the mystery shopper assignment weren’t demeaning, but rather were “intended to improve his performance and was not part of a campaign to cause Mr. Chevalier to leave the company,” said the court.

In addition, the court found Active Tire didn’t breach the employment agreement when it tried to assign him to Brampton and Toronto, since Chevalier agreed to it. By providing him with a vehicle and paying for his travel time, Active Tire was finding ways to keep Chevalier employed in the wake of his problems adapting and not trying to push him out, said the court.

Active Tire’s decision to lay off Chevalier was for business reasons and not out of any bad faith, and its attempt to correct its mistake when it realized it couldn’t simply lay him off showed no suggestion of treating Chevalier in humiliating or demeaning manner, said the court. The original layoff constituted constructive dismissal, since reasonable notice — which would have been 16 months, the court said — wasn’t given. However, there was no indication that Chevalier would be returning to a poisoned work environment, and the court found a reasonable person would have accepted the offer to come back. As a result, Chevalier’s claim was dismissed. See Chevalier v. Active Tire & Auto Centre Inc., 2012 CarswellOnt 9220 (Ont. S.C.J.).

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