Clarity of Fixed Term Wins Out Over Ambiguous Termination Clause.

In Lawis v ProCabinet Design and Coastal Marine ( 2018 CanLII 95659) Judge Orr of then Provincial Court of Nfld and Labrador has a situation where the contract contained the following provisions:

This contract shall have a duration of 24 months from the date the Employee assumes his functions.

Notice of Resignation Should he /she wish to terminate the present contract, The Employee, agrees to give the Employer written notice thereof at least one week in advance.”

“The Employer must give written notice before terminating the contract of the Employee if the Employee has completed 3 months of uninterrupted service with the employer and if the contract is not about to expire. This notice shall be provided at least one week in advance.”

The Employee was terminated after 12 months due to lack of work.

The issue thus was whether the Employee was entitled to the balance of the contract ( 12 months ) or the one week notice.

Interestingly the Judge noted that ” there no provisions with respect to notice periods”.

In finding that the Employee was entitled to the 12 month balance of the term, the Judge said as follows:

 In Miller v. Convergys CMG Canada Limited, 2014 BCCA 311 (CanLII) 

The Court of Appeal considered the interpretation of employment contracts holding:

  • The court should strive to give effect to what the parties reasonably intended to agree to when the contract was made.
  • The language of the contract should be given its plain and literal meaning, and be interpreted in the context of the entire agreement. Consideration also may be given to the factual matrix surrounding the creation of the contract.
  • If the contractual language reveals two possible interpretations, the court should seek to resolve this ambiguity by searching for an interpretation that reflects the true intent and reasonable expectations of the parties when they entered the contract, and achieves a result consistent with commercial efficacy and good sense. Considerations of reasonableness and fairness inform this exercise.
  • If these principles do not resolve the ambiguity, then extrinsic evidence may be admissible to assist in ascertaining the parties’ intent.
  • As a last resort only, the principle of contra proferentem may be invoked to favour construction of the ambiguity against the party who drafted the agreement. The principle of contra proferentum may not be used, however, to create or magnify an ambiguity.
  • Employment contracts should be interpreted in a manner that favours employment law principles, specifically the protection of vulnerable employees in their dealings with their employers. Even so, the construction of an employment contract remains an exercise in contractual interpretation, and the intentions of the parties will generally prevail, even if this detracts from employment law goals that are otherwise presumed to apply.

[21]        In Mr. Lawis’s case, it would be unreasonable to interpret the clause in such a way that it allowed the employer to terminate the agreement without cause on one weeks’ notice. Considering all the facts and specifically that the agreement was for a term of two years and involved the employee leaving his current employment and traveling from the Philippines at his own expense. The clause does not specify any notice period and as a result must be read as not setting out a notice period. I find as a result that Mr. Lawis is entitled to be paid the balance of the unexpired term of the agreement.

The contract interpretative principles cited in this case are very similar to those set out in the Ontario Court of appeal case called Wood v Fred Deeley Imports (2017 ONCA 158) where Laskin J. set out the following guiding principles:

(c)       The jurisprudence on interpreting employment agreements

[25]     The question of the enforceability of the termination clause turns on the wording of the clause, the purpose and language of the ESA, and the jurisprudence on interpreting employment agreements. That jurisprudence is now well-established. I will summarize it briefly.

[26]     In general, courts interpret employment agreements differently from other commercial agreements. They do so mainly because of the importance of employment in a person’s life. As Dickson C.J.C. said in an oft-quoted passage from his judgment in Reference re Public Service Employee Relations Act (Alberta), 1987 CanLII 88 (SCC), [1987] 1 S.C.R. 313, at p. 368:

Work is one of the most fundamental aspects in a person’s life, providing the individual with a means of financial support and, as importantly, a contributory role in society. A person’s employment is an essential component of his or her sense of identity, self-worth and emotional well-being.

[27]     As important as employment itself is the way a person’s employment is terminated. It is on termination of employment that a person is most vulnerable and thus is most in need of protection: see Wallace v. United Grain Growers Ltd., 1997 CanLII 332 (SCC), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 701. 

[28]     The importance of employment and the vulnerability of employees when their employment is terminated give rise to a number of considerations relevant to the interpretation and enforceability of a termination clause:

•        When employment agreements are made, usually employees have less bargaining power than employers. Employees rarely have enough information or leverage to bargain with employers on an equal footing: Machtinger, p. 1003

•        Many employees are likely unfamiliar with the employment standards in the ESA and the obligations the statute imposes on employers. These employees may not seek to challenge unlawful termination clauses: Machtinger, p. 1003

•        The ESA is remedial legislation, intended to protect the interests of employees. Courts should thus favour an interpretation of the ESA that “encourages employers to comply with the minimum requirements of the Act” and “extends its protections to as many employees as possible”, over an interpretation that does not do so: Machtinger, p. 1003.

•        Termination clauses should be interpreted in a way that encourages employers to draft agreements that comply with the ESA. If the only consequence employers suffer for drafting a termination clause that fails to comply with the ESA is an order that they comply, then they will have little or no incentive to draft a lawful termination clause at the beginning of the employment relationship: Machtinger, p. 1004.

•        A termination clause will rebut the presumption of reasonable notice only if its wording is clear. Employees should know at the beginning of their employment what their entitlement will be at the end of their employment: Machtinger, p. 998.

•      Faced with a termination clause that could reasonably be interpreted in more than one way, courts should prefer the interpretation that gives the greater benefit to the employee: Ceccol v. Ontario Gymnastics Federation (2001), 2001 CanLII 8589 (ON CA), 149 O.A.C. 315, Family Counselling Centre of Sault Ste. Marie and District (2001), 2001 CanLII 4698 (ON CA), 151 O.A.C. 35.

In spite of these clear statements from two Courts of Appeal, in my opinion some judges still seem to apply a strictly commercial interpretation to employment agreements and simply do not properly follow the special rules of interpretation that apply to employment agreements .