In Baker v. Weyerhaeuser Company Limited, 2022 ABCA 83 (CanLII), the Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the judgment of a trial judge who found that a company wrongfully terminated an employee. The manager who spearheaded the termination felt personally disrespected by the employee, which acted as his impetus for the ultimate termination. There were incidents which occurred during the employee’s tenure which warranted disciplinary action, but the employee had argued this was not the real cause.
The trial judge applied McKinley to determine if the employee’s misconduct amounted to just cause. The trial judge also cited Tymko, which lists a number of factors to consider when an employee’s misconduct relates to a safety issue. The Court of Appeal endorsed the approach, and found the trial judge made no errors warranty review.
Baker was hired by Weyerhaeuser in 2002, and worked there until 2010 when he was downsized. He was re-employed by Weyerhaeuser at a different location. A year later, he moved into a supervisory role where he issued work permits for certain types of hazardous work. A number of incidents occurred during his shift, and eventually he was terminated, one month after he had a discussion with his bosses concerning the incidents.
At trial, the employer’s contention was that it had sufficient grounds to terminate his employment due to the incidents. Baker admitted various errors during his tenure. Weyerhaeuser maintained that Baker was terminated in accordance with its progressive discipline policy guidelines. On appeal, Baker argued that his manager had a private vendetta against him (paras 2-16).
The trial judge accepted that one of the manager’s main reasons to terminate Baker was due to Baker having called him ‘classless’. The trial judge accepted that the incidents during Baker’s tenure gave grounds for discipline, but found they were not the real reason that Baker was terminated. The trial judge concluded that the reason for the termination was because Baker’s manager was angry at Baker for not treating him as ‘the boss’ (paras. 17-19)
The trial judge identified the test for dismissal due to dishonesty as set out in McKinley v BC Tel: “whether the employee’s dishonesty gave rise to a breakdown in the employment relationship” (para. 20). The trial judge found that the steps taken in relation to Baker’s termination did not comply with the company’s progressive discipline policy guidelines, and did not justify his outright termination. Moreover, she found that the defendant’s actions in terminating Baker were made in bad faith (para. 21). The trial judge found the appropriate term of notice would be 1 year and awarded damages on that basis (para. 22).
The Court of Appeal held that whether misconduct amounts to just cause for dismissal is a question of mixed fact and law, and the standard of review is palpable and overriding error, unless an extricable error of law or principle is identified (para. 24). The calculation of the length of an employee’s reasonable notice prior to termination as an assessment of damages is heavily dependent on the facts in each case and is reviewed for palpable and overriding error (para. 25).
The determination of whether an employee’s misconduct amounts to just cause for dismissal involves a contextual analysis in keeping with the “principle of proportionality”. A finding of misconduct does not, in and of itself, give rise to just cause for termination of employment. “Rather, the question is whether, in the circumstances, the behaviour [of the employee] was such that the employment relationship could no longer viably subsist” (paras. 27-28). “The particular label attached to the category of misconduct does not govern the determination. The requisite contextual analysis calls for consideration of the degree of the misconduct that is said to justify dismissal and an assessment of whether, having regard to all the circumstances, it is of such a nature to destroy the employment relationship” (para. 29).
Sufficiency of reasons is not a standalone ground of appeal (para. 26).
Ultimately, the Trial Judge was found not to have erred, and the appeal was dismissed.