Refusal to work and sign list of duties does not constitute just cause: B.C. court

An employee’s refusal to work can be just cause for dismissal, but if new duties were added after employee was hired, it’s not so simple

A British Columbia employer was not justified in terminating an employee for cause in response to the employee refusing to sign an updated list of employment duties, the B.C. Provincial Court has ruled.

In May 2012, Deborah McAulay began her sixth season with the Fauquier and District Golf Club, and during this season she worked as a clubhouse attendant. While in previous years McAulay had been required to perform outdoor work, she understood that for the current season her employment duties consisted of in-house chores for the employer’s clubhouse. However, prior to beginning her employment, McAulay requested further clarification of what her employment duties would be. Such clarification was not provided and McAulay began her new season of employment on May 18, 2012.

In June 2012, members of the clubhouse expressed concern to the golf club that that McAulay appeared to not have any work to perform. Given that the clubhouse was slow with customers, on June 6, 2012, the golf club informed McAulay that she should be prepared to work outside. McAulay refused to do so and left the workplace. As a result, the golf club created a written list of duties to be performed by clubhouse attendants, which included a number of outdoor duties including washing and cleaning outhouses, emptying garbage cans, servicing ball washers, and other work on the golf course as needed.

On June 8, 2012, the golf club requested McAulay sign the list of duties, which she refused to do. As a result, the golf club terminated her employment for cause.

The B.C. Provincial Court determined “that a person employed as a clubhouse attendant at the golf club could be expected to be asked to work outside the clubhouse from time to time,” and therefore “it was not an unreasonable request on the part of her employer to ask her to undertake some outdoor work.” However, the court clarified that “the question is whether her initial refusal to work outside pending a clarification of her job duties and her second refusal to sign the list of job duties proffered to her at the June 8 meeting, constitutes a breach of her employment contract such that her employer was justified in dismissing her without the so-called cushion of a notice period.”

After a review of case law on the issue of termination for cause, the court found that, given the scope of McAulay’s duties as a clubhouse attendant required clarification “it cannot be said her job duties were so clear that a refusal to work outside prior to the June 8 meeting would have justified her dismissal” and that the golf club “was in no way justified in dismissing [McAulay] simply because she refused to sign the list. It was clearly not an aspect of her employment contract.”

Impact of decision on employers

The above decision highlights the contextual approach that must be made taken by employers when determining when and how to terminate. While an employee’s refusal to perform her employment duties may result in a termination for cause, the surrounding circumstances in which the refusal occurs will impact on whether an employer is justified in terminating the employee for cause. As a result, and given the damages an employer may face if found to have been unjustified in terminating an employee for cause, they should take care before proceeding with such terminations.

Impact of decision on employees

While the conduct engaged in by the employee may not be reasonable and inappropriate at the workplace, this does not necessarily result in the employer being justified in terminating the employee without providing any notice. In such circumstances, employees be aware there that a high threshold of termination for cause has been established in employment law.

For more information see:

McAulay v. Fauquier & District Golf Club, 2013 CarswellBC 3360 (B.C. Prov. Ct.).

Ronald S. Minken is a senior lawyer and mediator at Minken Employment Lawyers, an employment law boutique in Markham, Ont. He can be reached at Ron gratefully acknowledges Sara Kauder and Kyle Burgis for their assistance in preparation of this article.

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