$40,000 misstep

Auto parts maker had just cause for dismissal — but didn’t use it in firing long-time staff member

Management at a Wallaceburg, Ont., auto parts manufacturer learned a $40,000 lesson in wrongful dismissal: make sure all of the employee’s poor behaviour is documented and that he is given a chance to correct any problems before being fired.

In Webb v. Eaton Yale Ltd., Justice Thomas A. Heeney said Eaton Yale would have been justified in dismissing long-time employee James Webb because of his refusal to communicate verbally with his superiors once he had been suspended.

But the company didn’t list that as a reason for terminating his employment, relying instead on the charges that led to the suspension, which the court found did not constitute just cause.

Webb started working for Eaton Yale in 1984 as an hourly paid production employee at the firm’s Wallaceburg plant. In 1988 Webb was promoted to the position of buyer, and moved to the nearby Chatham, Ont. location. He was responsible for negotiating and executing the purchase of supplies and services.

He was a reliable employee with a good attendance record. He was consistently rated as competent in his annual performance reviews and received merit increases in his salary on a regular basis. He remained in his role as buyer until he was terminated on June 30, 1996, at which time he was earning an annual salary of $42,180.

Webb’s dismissal was the result of a number of events that began on Tuesday, June 11, 1996. He had been told the previous week he was to work in Chatham on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and at Wallaceburg on Tuesday and Thursday for one week to cover for the Wallaceburg buyer, Ruth Bilodeau, who was on holidays. On June 11 he went into the Chatham office early to pick up his mail and reported to Wallaceburg.

At about 10:30 a.m. a secretary overheard him say that Bilodeau was on vacation. She told him that Bilodeau was actually in Vancouver for the week on a training seminar with the Purchasing Management Association of Canada (PMAC).

Webb became very upset because he had requested permission from Eaton Yale to attend similar PMAC seminars and had been denied. He was also angry because he had been lied to by his supervisor, Doug Kean, when he was told he was covering for Bilodeau because she was on holidays.

Because of the extra workload, and his upset state caused by his discovery of Bilodeau’s whereabouts, Webb said he began to experience chest pains. He phoned around to various people in both plants, leaving messages that he was sick and was going home.

At home he spoke to his wife, a nurse, and gradually settled down. His chest pains subsided. He did not go to see his doctor or go to the hospital to seek treatment or conduct any investigation as to what was causing the pain. Later that day, once he was feeling better, he decided to go back to work in Wallaceburg. But first he stopped by the Chatham office to pick up any mail that had accumulated since the morning.

He then proceeded to carry out three or four heavy boxes of free vendor catalogues that he intended to deliver to Wallaceburg. They had been accumulating for some time and he said they were worthless but might be of interest to the engineering staff in Wallaceburg.

On his way to Wallaceburg he began to experience chest pains again and decided to turn around and head home. He did not report to work for the balance of the day. He returned the following day, reporting to work as usual in Chatham.

He told Kean he didn’t think it was fair he was left alone while Bilodeau was sent off to Vancouver. Kean did not discuss the events of the previous day but made a note to bring up Webb’s conduct at a later date.

That later date became Friday, June 14. Webb arrived at work in Chatham at 7:45 a.m., and found the plant was experiencing a power failure. His interior office was dark. Since he had a meeting with an insurance adjuster at home at 9 a.m. he took some work with him and went home.

He returned to the office at 9:30 a.m. and was called in for a meeting with Kean and Bob Huson, where three problems the company had with Webb were raised. The company was concerned about:

•Webb’s actions in Wallaceburg when he left complaining of chest pains. Management didn’t believe he was suffering from chest pains, because it did not mesh with him loading heavy boxes into his car later that same day. It also didn’t approve of his leaving that morning because the power was out.

•His removal of company property — the vendor magazines — without permission.

•His handing out of religious material — including literature and videotapes — to co-workers and outside customers.

Webb was suspended with pay and was told to go home and wait by the telephone. Management said they began phoning on June 18 but were not able to get in touch with him until June 24.

On that day Webb insisted the only way he would communicate was by fax and refused to attend a meeting or talk on the phone. A number of faxes were exchanged, and the decision was made to terminate Webb immediately. A registered letter was sent stating he would be paid through to June 30.

The first issue before the court was whether or not there was just cause for dismissal.

Even though the court agreed Webb was likely not suffering from chest pains when he left work, that he had inappropriately discussed his religious views while representing the company and that he had tossed away the vendor catalogues without permission, it found those three charges did not amount to sufficient just cause.

“The plaintiff was a good employee who performed his job in a loyal, competent fashion for 12 years. He had a good attendance record,” said Justice Heeney. “ Thus, while being absent on one occasion without a good reason would justify some disciplinary measures being imposed, it falls far short of justifying dismissal. Furthermore, a warning would have been first required, so that the plaintiff was put on notice that if he was absent from work again without a legitimate reason, he would be terminated.”

As for the religious comments, Webb had talked to a supplier about one of its employees who had committed suicide and asked if the deceased had accepted Jesus Christ as his saviour and stated if he hadn’t, then he would be in hell. Justice Heeney wrote:

“While it is clearly inappropriate for (Webb) to be promoting his own personal religious views while he is speaking as a representative of the defendant, that fact that he did so on one occasion only, with no prior warning that such behaviour would result in dismissal, leads me to conclude that dismissal is a disproportionate response to the infraction, given (Webb’s) otherwise unblemished employment record.”

As for the removal of company property, the court agreed it was inappropriate but seeing as it was outdated free vendor catalogues, it viewed it more as a technicality.

The court awarded Webb one month for every year of service, for a total of 12-months’ notice, which amounted to $42,180. Webb was also seeking Wallace-type damages due to the bad-faith conduct of Eaton Yale, but the judge quickly tossed that out.

“If anyone is guilty of bad faith, it is (Webb), in his obstinate refusal to meet and discuss the company’s concerns,” said Justice Heeney.

But the court’s comments on what would have been cause for dismissal in this case offer the most insight for employers. Justice Heeney said Webb’s refusal to meet and discuss the concerns could have been grounds for dismissal.

Had Eaton Yale told Webb his attendance was required at a specific time and place to verbally discuss these issues, and that failing to show up would result in his termination, then Justice Heeney said he would have found just cause had Webb refused to attend that meeting.

“However (Eaton Yale) did not do so,” he wrote. “The requirement that fair warning be given to an employee is an important requirement. It gives the employee notice of the offending behaviour, and affords the opportunity to correct (it) and thereby avoid termination. Here, had a proper warning been given, (Webb) may have come to his senses and agreed to meet to discuss matters verbally.”

For more information see:

Webb v. Eaton Yale Ltd., 2003 CarswellOnt 4950 (Ont. S.C.J.)

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