Toronto Humane Society workers had no reason to reject work

Workers thought Humane Society's actions in collecting strays was illegal — but court said there was no legal basis for that opinion

Workers cannot stop doing their duties without a legitimate reason for thinking they’re being asked to do something illegal.

Diane Roden and Karen Mottram worked for the Toronto Humane Society. Their employment was terminated on June 25, 2002, when they refused to implement the society’s policies on accepting stray animals.

The Humane Society operates a large animal shelter in Toronto. Roden was the shelter manager overseeing day-to-day operations of the shelter. She was responsible for up to 50 union employees and three supervisors. Mottram was one of the three supervisors and was responsible for animals being moved through the shelter and being released to the public.

In 2001 the society was restructured and it stopped taking in strays. But in March 2002 employees were instructed to recommence taking in and caring for all animals in distress. Roden and Mottram were concerned about the society’s authority to take in stray animals under Ontario law. Additional meetings were held and memos sent to address these worries.

On June 4, 2002 Roden wrote a letter to her superior that made clear her concerns. It referred to a passage in the society’s code of conduct stating that “No one in the society … is ever expected to commit or condone any illegal or unethical act or to instruct other employees to do so.”

When Roden and Mottram again expressed their concern about the legality of taking in strays another meeting was held on June 7. Staff members were shown five legal opinions stating the society had the authority to do so.

After the meeting Roden and Mottram worked for a few days and then were absent. They were called to separate meetings on June 25 and asked if they were prepared to carry out their job responsibilities as assigned.

They said no, and were given termination letters. They commenced separate actions for wrongful dismissal and when their claims were dismissed they appealed.

The Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the trial judge’s ruling that the appellants were dismissed for cause. They had refused to follow instructions and at some point had been told to do so “or else.”

Their failure to perform their responsibilities was seriously hurting operations and the number of animals in the shelter had increased dramatically, ruled the trial judge. The plaintiffs had no basis upon which to be concerned that the society’s taking in of stray animals was illegal. No consequences would flow to them by following the society’s instructions.

The Court of Appeal found these rulings consistent with a finding of repudiation. Roden and Mottram’s unequivocal refusals on June 25 to perform their job duties amounted to repudiation of their employment contracts, it said.

There can be instances where an employee’s refusal to perform as instructed would not constitute repudiation. In this case, however, Roden and Mottram’s concerns had been fully aired and addressed prior to their June 25 terminations. After the June 7 meeting there was no justification for their continued refusal to perform their duties, the court said.

For more information see:

Roden v. Toronto Human Society, 2005 CarswellOnt 4479 (Ont. C.A.)

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