The Latest on Termination of Employment for Insubordination

The recent case of Smith v. Diversity Technologies Corporation provides some interesting insights into several employment law issues and principally that of termination for insubordination.

Mr. Smith was a sales manager for the defendant Diversity Technologies Corporation (“Diversity”). He had a record of being an exemplary employee. He had been employed by a company called Drillwell for 16 years before it was sold to Diversity and he worked at Diversity another four years until he was fired on October 14, 2011.

Diversity alleged that Smith had been terminated for just cause for insubordination. Smith had been the primary contact for a particular client which, by September 2011, owed Diversity about $100,000. At that point, Smith’s immediate superior instructed him to make sales to that customer in future only if they were paid for immediately by cash or credit card. Subsequently, his superior told him that no sales should be made to that customer at all because Diversity was going to be suing the customer to recover the debt.

Nevertheless, Mr. Smith did take an order from the customer of just over $1,000 without telling his superior. He accepted a cheque from the customer to pay for the order.

When this behavior was discovered by Diversity, Smith was fired.

Smith had entered into an employment contract providing for termination by the employer upon payment of one year’s salary which in this case was $100,000. In fact, Smith obtained comparable employment within a matter of weeks and the Court found that he had suffered no loss.

Not surprisingly, Smith put forward a different version of events relating to his instructions concerning that customer. He denied that he had willfully disobeyed his employer or that he had been insubordinate in any way.

Smith made a claim for the $100,000 severance payment and moved for summary judgment. Diversity insisted that Smith had been fired for cause and at worst, it was entitled to a trial to decide the case.

The motions judge had no difficulty dealing with the matter without requiring a trial. The judge considered that even though the versions of the story told by both sides were different, he was in an excellent position to rule on the matter even accepting Diversity’s version of the events, given the law relating to termination for insubordination.

On the facts of cases in which insubordination was held to constitute just cause for immediate termination, the Court noted that employers have the right to determine how business is to be conducted and employees are obliged to follow those instructions. Where an employee fails to follow lawful orders of his employer, he will be found to have disregarded an essential condition of his employment and this constitutes cause for immediate termination.

However, as this case demonstrates, the issue is not necessarily quite so clear cut. In this case, the Court considered that prior to the incident in question, Smith’s conduct as an employee had been beyond reproach. The amount in issue was trifling, particularly in comparison to the amount of the customer’s outstanding account. Because it was paid for immediately, the additional order did not increase the debt. Given Smith’s length of service and impeccable record, Diversity should have met with Smith, pointed out that his actions were in violation of the new company policy relating to this customer, and provided him with a properly-documented written warning. In proper context, his actions could not be considered as amounting to willful disobedience or insubordination.

The Court concluded by indicating that even if Smith’s conduct could be described as insubordinate, “it was not of a magnitude sufficient to justify termination.” Had Smith continued this behavior, Diversity would have had grounds for termination but in this case, its actions in terminating Smith’s employment were not justified.

On the question of damages, it was clear that Smith had mitigated his damages completely. However, given the terms of his employment agreement, Diversity was ordered to pay Smith $100,000 representing the amount payable under the employment contract.

This case demonstrates that before an employer terminates an employee without notice for insubordination, the employer must consider the context of the insubordinate act. An employer cannot simply seize on one instance of an act which might be considered insubordinate in some technical way to justify terminating the employment of an employee of long standing who has an otherwise unblemished record.

The Further Development of Ontario’s Summary Judgment Rule

Several weeks ago, I posted an article about the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Hryniak v. Mauldin, et al., and indicated that in my view this case represented a momentous shift in Ontario’s law on summary judgment.

Further cases released since that time have confirmed my view. I believe that we are approaching a point at which summary judgment motions will become the norm and trials the exception.

The most recent pronouncement in this regard, released several days ago, is the decision of Mr. Justice Corbett in Sweda Farms v. Egg Farmers of Ontario. In that case, a factually complex claim in which the plaintiff alleged that it had been the victim of a conspiracy, that it had suffered losses as a result of the misuse of confidential information, that it had been the victim of violations of the Federal Competition Act, and that it was entitled to damages for both breach of contract and unjust enrichment would never, under the old regime, have been considered a candidate for a summary judgment ruling in favour of either party and on any basis.

However, that is no longer the case.

Leaving the facts aside, the important part of the decision for our purposes has to do with the manner in which Justice Corbett analysed the results of the Hryniak case. In his view, that case:

“… provides a basis for a sort of reverse engineering of this motion, one that may be of great use in summary judgment motions in general. The Supreme Court of Canada is clear that the motions court should ask itself why it should not grant summary judgment”
[emphasis added]

The Court goes on to say that where the motion fails, the Court’s answer to that question “will become an agenda for the case up to its final disposition, in most cases, by the judge who presided on the motion for summary judgment.”

In the past, motion court judges have looked at voluminous motion records, raised their eyebrows and wondered how it could ever be possible to conclude, on the basis of such a significant amount of evidence, that the outcome of a case was beyond doubt. It is clear that this is no longer a relevant consideration. As the Court in this case said, “summary judgment motions come in all shapes and sizes, and this is recognized in the Supreme Court of Canada’s emphasis on ‘proportionality’ as a controlling principle for summary judgment motions. This principle does not mean that large complicated cases must go to trial while small single issue cases should not.” At the end of the day, a judgment will be rendered if it can be done fairly and justly without a trial, and a formal trial is no longer to be “the yardstick by which the requirements of fairness and justice are measured.”

To reiterate a sentiment that I expressed previously, the consequences of this new regime for litigants cannot be understated. While summary judgment motions were once the exception, it appears to me that they will now become commonplace. At the same time, of course, this will mean that the evidence that will be required either to prove a claim, or to prove that a claim has no merit, will now have to be generated at a very early stage in the proceeding rather than later in the process and usually after the completion of examinations for discovery and the exchange of undertakings.

Accordingly, and at its most basic, it now appears that the expense to which litigants can expect to be put near the outset of a matter is going to increase very substantially. At one time, intensive trial preparation commenced within the weeks preceding a scheduled trial. At that point, the meters began running almost continuously and the costs to a litigant of getting ready for trial began to mount. However, up to that point, the extent to which litigants were put to expense depended not only on the complexity of a matter but also on the willingness of counsel to expend the time necessary to prepare every minute aspect of a case any sooner than he or she had to do so.

This may no longer be the case. Even though summary judgment motions generally take place early on in a proceeding, and often before examinations for discovery, it is clear that the motions court will require a full evidentiary record in order to deal with a matter. In the Sweda Farms case, the Court found that the plaintiff had failed to provide it with sufficient hard evidence to justify its position. It asserted that it would be calling nearly 100 witnesses at trial but as at the date of the motion, it was found not to be able to put forward sufficient evidence to justify its position.

Accordingly, Sweda‘s claim was dismissed summarily. This is not withstanding the fact that as Courts have noted in the past, conspiracy claims by their very nature involve investigation and the generating of evidence usually not known to a plaintiff until after the completion of the discovery process.

Looking at the situation from a different perspective, I have for many years lamented the fact that pressure on litigants and their counsel to settle cases, relentless as it has been, has made it exceedingly difficult for parties and their lawyers wishing to go to trial to actually do so. This may have significant advantages for a number of litigants, who should be taking a serious look at settlement early on. However, a reduction in the number of matters going to trial does have some negative repercussions.

Firstly, while much of the law governing citizens of Ontario are contained in statutes, as much or more is reflected in jurisprudence. The fewer the number of matters that go to trial, the less guidance that becomes available to us all as to what our rights and obligations are, as society evolves.

Secondly, I am becoming increasingly aware of young and perhaps not so young lawyers in this province who wish to become proficient advocates, having fewer and fewer opportunities to actually go to trial and learn how to advocate. Fewer trials means fewer opportunities for professional growth. As a result, when matters ultimately do go to trial, to the extent that this ever happens, litigants are not as well represented as they might otherwise have been.

In my view, these trends will now be accelerated as a result of the change in the law of summary judgment. One can only hope that the positives will outweigh the negatives over the long haul.