Termination Provisions in Employment Contracts Are Not Always Enforceable

The recent decision in Miller v. A.B.M. Canada Inc. provides a useful lesson on the extent to which one can rely on the termination provisions in an employment contract.

In this case, Mr. Miller joined ABM in 2009. He was given a draft employment contract with no deadline for him to sign it. It was set up with a series of appropriate headings and a plain language description of the terms appropriate to each heading. It contained a clause entitled “Termination” and at trial, Mr. Miller testified that he saw the heading and knew what it meant but did not read the terms set out under it.

The contract provided for a salary and in addition, ABM agreed to match Mr. Miller’s personal pension contributions up to a maximum of six percent of base salary. Mr. Miller was also to be provided with a monthly car allowance. These additional items appeared under the headings “Remuneration” and “Fringe Benefits” respectively.

Under “Termination”, the contract provided that Mr. Miller’s employment could be terminated without cause “upon being given the minimum period of notice prescribed by applicable legislation, or by being paid salary in lieu of such notice or as may otherwise be required by the applicable legislation”.

Mr. Miller began work in September 2009. His employment was terminated in January 2011. At that point, ABM provided Mr. Miller with two weeks of salary in lieu of notice, being salary in lieu of the minimum period of notice prescribed by Ontario’s legislation. He ultimately received a pay cheque for the two weeks’ salary plus vacation pay. The cheque did not include anything for his car allowance component or pension contributions.

Mr. Miller sued for damages, taking the position that the termination provision was null and void so that his entitlement should be determined on the basis of the common law. ABM’s position was that its obligations were limited to payment of salary under the contract, which payment was made. ABM acknowledged that Mr. Miller might be entitled to the pension contribution of six percent of base salary for two weeks plus a car allowance for two weeks, but nothing more.

The court observed that employees under a contract of employment for an indefinite period are entitled to reasonable notice of termination. This is to be treated as a presumption, rebutted only if there is a contract clearly specifying another period of notice and that other period is not inconsistent with legislated minimums.

The court felt that a termination provision specifying a minimum period of notice would be effective to rebut the common law presumption if the period is not contrary to the minimum provided by the legislation. However, the court observed that the length of the notice period is only part of the termination equation. One aspect is the length of time during which the employee is to be paid in lieu of notice. The amount to be paid to the employee during that period is a separate issue.

The law is clear that any provisions that attempt to contract out of minimum employment standards by providing for lesser benefits than those legislated as minimums, are null and void.

In this case, the termination clause provided that Mr. Miller’s employment could be terminated upon being paid salary in lieu of the minimum period of notice prescribed by the legislation. Mr. Miller, however, was also entitled to additional amounts for pension contributions and car allowance as part of his remuneration package.

The court found that the termination clause actually provided for compensation in an amount that was less than required by the legislation. The minimum employment standards legislation includes benefits. Salary, as defined in the contract and specified in the termination clause, did not.

As a result, the termination clause failed to comply with the provisions of the legislation. For that reason, it was null and void and incapable of rebutting the common law presumption that Mr. Miller would be entitled to reasonable notice under common law principles. The court went on to award damages equivalent to 2.5 months of base salary together with additional amounts for benefits.

It is easy to criticize this decision for being overly technical. One would have to assume that if the person at ABM who prepared that contract had been properly advised, the word “salary” in the termination clause would have been changed to take into account the entire remuneration package being provided to Mr. Miller. The additional amounts in issue were quite trivial. Nevertheless, as technical as this approach may appear, this is a reflection of the way courts interpret employment agreements. Generally speaking, employees tend to be given the benefit of any doubt. This case is yet another illustration of the care that has to be taken in drafting employment contracts and particularly their termination provisions.

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The Latest on Employment Contracts that Require Employees to Give Notice of Termination

The recent case of BlackBerry Limited v Marineau-Mes provides a useful insight into the often murky area of the obligations of an employee to provide notice of his intention to resign.

In this case, the employee was a Senior Vice President of BlackBerry Limited.

In the fall of 2013, he accepted a promotion to Executive Vice President in charge of about 3,000 employees. He signed an employment contract for his new position.

Among other things, the contract provided that he could resign at any time on six months’ prior written notice. The contract provided that during the notice period, he would continue to provide active service to the extent required by BlackBerry.

By the time he signed the contract in October 2013, he had already begun discussions with Apple Inc. about a new job. About a month after signing the contract, he had some discussions with BlackBerry’s newly appointed Chief Executive Officer which he did not find satisfactory, because the discussions included the notion that his role might ultimately be narrower in scope than originally contemplated.

One month later, in December 2013, Apple offered him a senior management position and he gave BlackBerry written notice of his resignation. He advised BlackBerry that he intended to join Apple in California in about two months.

This led to a dispute as to whether or not he was obliged to provide BlackBerry with six months’ notice of his resignation as required by the contract, thereby making himself available to assist with his transition out of the company for that period of time. BlackBerry brought an Application to the Court for an Order to that effect. The employee took the position that the contract was not valid and enforceable.

There is an abundance of case law around the question of reasonable notice of termination when an employer makes the decision to fire an employee. There is much less case law relating to the extent to which employees are obliged to give reasonable notice of resignation. That may be why BlackBerry insisted on a specific contractual term requiring six months’ notice in the event that this senior employee wished to resign.

The problem is that these concepts are not simply the opposite sides of the same coin. It is generally open to an employer that does not wish the terminated employee to actually work through his notice period, to provide the terminated employee with pay in lieu of reasonable notice. On the other hand, where the employee is resigning, the employer may well need the employee to continue to work through the notice period, or to at least make himself available so that there can be an orderly transition of that employee’s duties to a replacement. A payment of money by the resigning employee to the employer to take the place of that notice period simply won’t address the problem that the employer may be facing, particularly where the resigning employee is a member of senior management or has other specific knowledge or training that the replacement employee will not have.

In this case, the employee argued firstly that even if the contract was valid, he was free to leave during the notice period and BlackBerry’s remedy was an action for damages if any. The Court had no difficulty rejecting that argument.

The employee raised a number of other minor arguments but the other major point he tried to make was that the six month notice period was the equivalent of a non-competition covenant which was unreasonable and therefore unenforceable.

The Court did not accept that submission either. The Court found BlackBerry’s argument that it was necessary to have the employee available, and that the notice period was one of the tools allowing it to achieve that end, to be quite reasonable. Furthermore, given that the employee knew all along that he was expected to remain available to perform duties to BlackBerry during the notice period, and that these services would be necessary for his transition out of the company, the Court rejected the argument that the notice period was the equivalent of a non-competition clause. Finally and in any event, the Court observed that while the notice period did have some aspects of a non-competition agreement, it is the law in Ontario that reasonable competition clauses are enforceable. The Court found this clause to be eminently reasonable.

In the result, the Court found that BlackBerry was entitled to a declaration that the contract was binding and that the employee was required to provide six months’ prior written notice of resignation.

In my experience, employees sometimes seem to think that if they choose to resign, they will be able to do so without any particular regard for their obligation to provide reasonable notice. That may be true for some. However, where an employer is careful enough to require a specific notice period in an employment agreement, this case is a reminder that employees signing such employment agreements must take those clauses seriously.

Furthermore, for those perspective employers interested in hiring senior employees, it may well be prudent to question the perspective recruit as to any obligation that individual may have to provide reasonable notice of resignation to his or her former employer.