Employers, Take Caution with Just Cause

January 30, 2024 /

In the recent BC Supreme Court judgment of Lefebvre v. Gisborne Holdings Ltd., 2023 BCSC 2231 (“Lefebvre”), the Court reaffirmed the need for employers to exercise caution when considering just cause termination, once again highlighting its severity as a remedy for employee misconduct.

Background

In Lefebvre, the employee, Ms. Lefebvre, was hired by employer, Gisborne Holdings Ltd. (“Gisborne”), on a fixed-term contract to replace an employee on parental leave. Approximately six weeks into her employment, Gisborne terminated Ms. Lefebvre after she sent an email to human resources (“HR”) expressing concerns about her manager. Gisborne claimed that the contents of the email to HR amounted to insubordination and, therefore, it had just cause (termination without notice or severance) to terminate Ms. Lefebvre. Consequently, Ms. Lefebvre sued Gisborne for wrongful dismissal.

Decision

At trial, the Court determined that the just cause dismissal of Ms. Lefebrve was harsh and unwarranted. The Court reasoned that Gisborne:

  • did not adequately train Ms. Lefebvre for all the tasks assigned to her;
  • gave Ms. Lefebvre no warning, reprimand, or any other form of discipline prior to her termination;
  • failed to consider the suitability of alternative disciplinary measures to dismissal;
  • failed to give Ms. Lefebvre a reasonable opportunity to improve her performance; and
  • failed to follow their own progressive discipline policy.

The Court opined that a just cause dismissal was disproportionate to Ms. Lefebvre’s alleged misconduct. Accordingly, Ms. Lefebvre was wrongfully dismissed.

In reaching its decision, the Court reaffirmed that the test for just cause termination is – “misconduct so egregious as to effectively render continuation of the employment relationship impossible”.[1] In this case, Ms. Lefebvre’s conduct did not reach that level of misconduct because:

  • she did not send the email to anyone beyond HR;
  • she did not undermine her manager’s authority with other employees; and
  • she expressed a willingness to follow her manager’s direction and build better working relationships.

Damages

Given that Ms. Lefebvre had a fixed-term contract with Gisborne, the Court first examined the contract language to ascertain termination rights and entitlements. Regrettably for Gisborne, Ms. Lefebvre’s contract lacked early termination provisions, leading the Court to award her damages equivalent to the earnings she would have received for the remainder of her fixed-term employment contract: $81,100.

Key Takeaways

Employers can learn several lessons from Lefebvre:

  • Just cause termination is reserved for cases of egregious misconduct, and employers should exercise caution when considering it as a means of termination;
  • Poor performance and minor instances of insubordination are not adequate grounds for just cause termination; and
  •  Employment contracts should be well drafted and contain enforceable early termination provisions.

If you would like to discuss terminations, workplace policies, employment contracts, or any other workplace issues, reach out to our MT + Co Workplace Law Group.


[1] Lefebvre v. Gisborne Holdings Ltd., 2023 BCSC 2231 at para 49 citing Stevens v. Port Coquitlam (City), 2022 BCSC 2090 at para 79.