Can an Employer Enforce Onerous Clauses in an Employment Agreement?

The recently-decided case of Battiston v. Microsoft Canada Inc. is a useful reminder to employers to specifically draw a prospective employee’s attention to clauses in a proposed employment or related agreement that might later be found by a Court to be unusually onerous.

In this case, Battiston was employed by Microsoft for almost 23 years until his employment was terminated without cause in 2018.

Every year, in addition to his salary, Battiston had received benefits such as pay increases, bonuses, and stock awards.

When he was terminated, Microsoft took the position that Battiston was no longer entitled to the vesting of any stock awards that were granted but had not yet vested.

While the lawsuit involved several issues, the one of particular interest has to do with whether or not Microsoft’s position on the unvested stock awards was justified. Battiston took the position that he was entitled to all previously-granted stock awards that would have vested during the notice period had proper notice been given.

The stock awards were an integral part of Battiston’s compensation. In considering whether the loss of that benefit was recoverable, the Court pointed out that a two-step analysis is required. Firstly, the Court will determine the employee’s common law right to damages for breach of contract by assessing the amount to which the employee would have been entitled had proper notice been given. Secondly, the Court will consider the terms of the relevant employment agreement or plan to determine whether any clauses are taking away what would otherwise be the employee’s common law rights.

In this case, Microsoft issued Stock Award Agreements annually. They provided for stock awards vesting in various increments each year. At the date of his termination, Battiston had over 1,000 awarded but unvested shares. Had he been given proper notice, they would have vested during that time period.

The Stock Award Agreements included a provision that, in the event of the termination of Battiston’s employment, his right to unvested stock awards would terminate and would not be extended by any contractual or other notice period

At trial, Battiston testified that he did not read these Agreements, nor did Microsoft draw his attention to the termination provisions in them. He stated that he had been under the impression that he would be eligible to cash out his granted but unvested stock awards in the event of a termination without cause.

Microsoft relied on the termination provisions in the Stock Award Agreements, arguing that they specifically removed Battiston’s common law entitlement to the unvested stock awards.

The Court found that without a doubt, the provisions excluded his right to vest his stock awards following termination. However, that is not the end of the story. The Court referred to a number of Court of Appeal cases decided over the last number of years in which exclusion clauses in contracts were found to be unenforceable because the party submitting the document for signature failed to draw to the other party’s attention to terms that the Court would consider to be harsh and oppressive.

This philosophy applies to employment relationships, as well.

In this case, the Court determined that the termination provisions in the Stock Award Agreements were harsh and oppressive. They had not been brought to Battiston’s attention. For that reason, they could not be enforced against Battiston and he was entitled to damages in lieu of the unvested shares.

Unfortunately for employers, it is not always easy to predict what provisions will be found to be harsh and oppressive by a Court. Given that, presumably, stock awards are granted as an incentive to an employee to do what they can to increase company profits, there would be some logic behind Microsoft’s position in this case. Nevertheless, this case is a reminder to employers that, if an employment contract or plan document extinguishes the right of an employee to benefits immediately upon termination, very serious consideration should be given to specifically pointing out those provisions to the employee at the outset of the relationship.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s