Quitting for no good reason is not constructive dismissal

Employer has the right to say no if an employee attempts to alter the employment contract

Employers aren’t liable for constructive dismissal when corporate policy decisions negatively impact individual employees.

That’s the message Tamy Beaulne received from the Alberta Court of Queens Bench in Beaulne v. Kaverit Steel & Crane ULC (2002 CarswellAlta 1071), when she attempted, without success, to sue her employer when her request to change her work hours was denied.

Beaulne was employed as an assistant production manager in the Edmonton plant of crane manufacturer Kaverit Steel. She was a good employee who enjoyed ever-increasing responsibility. At the end of July 2000, she asked her immediate supervisor, the production superintendent, if she could change her work hours in order to attend Bible college in September 2000. She wanted to attend school in the morning and work for the balance of the day. Her supervisor readily agreed. Beaulne applied to the college and was accepted.

When Kaverit’s general manager learned of Beaulne’s plan to change her work hours, he immediately expressed concerns. The general manager, who was the production superintendent’s boss, told Beaulne he would not agree to the proposed change in work hours because it was necessary for her to be at work in the morning to meet the needs of customers and others in the company. The general manager gave Beaulne an ultimatum — work or school. Beaulne chose school and proceeded to sue Kaverit for constructive dismissal.

Did she quit or was she constructively dismissed? That was the central question before the court. Constructive dismissal has been defined as follows:

A constructive dismissal occurs when an employer makes a unilateral and fundamental change to a term or condition of an employment contract without providing reasonable notice of that change to the employee. Such action amounts to a repudiation of the contract of employment by the employer whether or not he intended to alter the employment relationship.

Therefore, the employee can treat the contract as wrongfully terminated and resign which, in turn, gives rise to an obligation on the employer’s part to provide damages in lieu of reasonable notice.

Beaulne had the burden to prove the breach was fundamental, permitting her to treat the contract as at an end. Unfortunately for her, she could not satisfy the burden. The court found the general manager had ultimate say over major organizational changes such as Beaulne’s work hours. The fact her immediate superior had initially agreed to the change was irrelevant.

The general manager had the ultimate authority in respect of such a decision. Beaulne’s actions suggested she was prepared to quit if she did not get her way. For business and workplace organization reasons, the employer was entitled to disallow Beaulne’s request to change her work hours.

Constructive dismissal is premised on the unilateral imposition of changes to the employee’s position by the employer which go to the root of the employment contract. In this case it was the employee, not the employer, who sought to alter the employment contract. The employer had the right to say no. The court held there had been no constructive dismissal and Beaulne was therefore not entitled to damages.

Mark Mason is an employment and litigation lawyer with Goodman and Carr LLP in Toronto. He can be reached at (416) 595-2171 or mmason@goodmancarr.com.

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