Dismissed for florid e-mail

An emotional and inappropriate response to a co-worker’s action did not constitute just cause

Owen M. O’Neil is an actuary who had been employed with Towers Perrin Inc. from 1989 until 1998. During the course of his employment, Mr. O’Neil had proven to be an excellent employee who received glowing annual evaluations. His problems at Towers Perrin first began in 1996. The problems never related to the quality of his work, rather to his relations with co-workers.

In 1996 Mr. O’Neil was accused of having made comments regarding a colleague, Mr. Samji, which were considered to be unprofessional by his supervisors. As a result of these comments, Towers Perrin decided that Mr. O’Neil must be punished.

His punishment came in the form of a reduction of Mr. O’Neil’s bonus for 1996 by five per cent, which represented a substantial financial penalty. Mr. O’Neil did not agree with the decision to punish him and advocated changes to his punishment without success. After that Mr. O’Neil continued without incident until the events in 1998 which led to the litigation.

By 1998 the Toronto pension department of Towers Perrin where Mr. O’Neil worked was suffering from space problems. The unit managers, of whom Mr. O’Neil was one, were tasked with reconfiguring the space to maximize efficiency. Mr. Samji, another unit manager, was too busy to take on the task and so Mr. O’Neil took on most of the responsibilities. It was Mr. O’Neil’s understanding that Mr. Samji would abide by whatever decision the other unit managers made.

During the space allocation discussions, Mr. O’Neil had problems with one of Mr. Samji’s staff who did not accept his decision. On July 31, 1998, Mr. Samji intervened by sending an e-mail to Mr. O’Neil indicating that one of his staff was not agreeable and that an alternate plan would have to be implemented.

The Court described Mr. O’Neil’s response as “somewhat florid” and “over the top.” He did not accept the “selfish attitude” and indicated that it was necessary for unit managers with these attitudes to step aside.

On Aug. 11, 1998, Mr. O’Neil met with his supervisor, Mr. Ruppel, to discuss the situation. In a follow-up e-mail, Mr. Ruppel indicated that Mr. O’Neil was out of line. Since Mr. O’Neil refused to accept that he misinterpreted the situation and was not prepared to work with the other unit leaders, exit options would be presented to him. Mr. O’Neil did not accept this interpretation of the meeting.

Contemporaneously there was an issue regarding goals for 1998. Towers Perrin took the position that Mr. O’Neil did not complete his goal procedure because he had not entered his 1998 goals into the database system. Mr. O’Neil took the position that his goal procedure was completed because it was not yet a formal requirement to enter goals into the database.

On Aug. 17, 1998, Mr. O’Neil met again with Mr. Ruppel and another supervisor where he was provided with two options for his exit from the company. One was to remain at the company until Jan. 1, 1999, at his full salary and benefits and his bonus to be calculated later against his 1998 performance goals. The other option involved termination effective Sept. 1, 1998, with a lump sum payment equal to 12 months’ salary and eight months of target bonus.

Mr. O’Neil found neither option acceptable. It was left for him to consider and he went on vacation. On his return from vacation in September 1998 he was handed a letter detailing the cessation of his employment. This letter purported to accept Mr. O’Neil’s resignation effective Dec. 31, 1998, but that his continued actions made it impossible to keep Mr. O’Neil on staff until that date. He was told to leave that day and was paid a total sum of $232,197 for the balance of 1998.

Mr. O’Neil brought an action for wrongful dismissal. Towers Perrin argued that Mr. O’Neil resigned or, alternatively, that he was dismissed for cause. At trial, the Court held that Mr. O’Neil did not resign. Further it held that Mr. O’Neil’s conduct by his e-mail of July 31 did not constitute cause for dismissal. His behaviour was merely an emotional response to the circumstances facing him.

With respect to his goals, the Court held that his 1998 goals had been arrived at during his meeting with Mr. Ruppel of May 14, in accordance with Towers Perrin official procedures at that time. The failure to properly document his 1998 goals in a database and his emotional response to Mr. Samji’s July 31 e-mail used by Towers Perrin to justify his dismissal were not accepted by the Court. The Court awarded Mr. O’Neil an additional payment of $127,283 as compensation for the wrongful dismissal.

For more information:

O’Neil v. Towers Perrin Inc., Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Docket No. 99-CV-167879, Aug. 28/01.

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