In Donald v. Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation ( 2016 NBQB 220 ) Justice McNally was faced with the situation of a school principal being terminated allegedly for just cause, however the termination letter gave no reasons for the dismissal. The reasons only came out later in the Statement of Defence.
After reviewing various authorities, the Judge had this to say about the procedural requirement of proving just cause:
27 As I read the authorities, the first step in the analysis of the merits of an action for unjust dismissal is a determination of the reasons communicated by the employer to the employee for the dismissal, followed by a determination of whether those reasons have been proven on the balance of probabilities and finally a determination of whether the facts as proven constitute a repudiation of an essential condition of the employment contract or a fundamental breach of the employment contract by the employee in the particular circumstances and context of the case and the employment relationship — see also McKinley v. BC Tel,  2 S.C.R. 161 (S.C.C.).
This paragraph sets out three distinct aspects for the employer to prove if they intend to rely on just cause :
1) Setting out the just cause in the termination letter.
2) Proving the facts supporting the cause.
3) Showing that the breach was serious enough to justify dismissal.
In respect to the first ground the Judge had the following to say :
28 With regards to the first step of the analysis in the instant case, the letter of termination presented to Mr. Donald on June 24, 2009 does not articulate the reasons for his dismissal, neither on its face nor by implication by incorporation of the content of the letter provided to him on February 8, 2010 which was apparently attached to the letter of termination. No evidence was presented to establish that the Band provided any more particulars verbally to Mr. Donald for the reason for his termination. No witness with direct knowledge was presented at trial by the Band to articulate the particular reasons for Mr. Donald’s termination. The defendant called two witnesses at trial, Ms. Ward and Karen Augustine, one of the Co-Managers and the author of the letter of concerns of February 8, 2010 to Mr. Donald. Ms. Augustine was on leave at the time of the dismissal and was not personally involved in the decision to dismiss Mr. Donald. She did confirm however, that she had no further discussions with Mr. Donald concerning absenteeism following the February 8, 2010 letter. There was no evidence to indicate that Ms. Ward was directly involved or participated in the actual decision to dismiss Mr. Donald.
The reference to the February 8th letter is a letter of concern regarding some performance issues, however there was no warning that further issues or concerns could lead to his termination with just cause.
The judge also commented on this first requirement in the following passages:
58 Metepenagiag has failed to meet its burden of proving either the specific reasons for the dismissal or that the reasons pleaded as grounds for dismissal constituted just cause in the circumstances. Again, there was no evidence presented from anyone in authority to speak for the employer, or with direct knowledge, to explain the reasons for Mr. Donald’s dismissal. The reference in the letter of termination from the Band Manager Kenny Levi to the issues and concerns addressed in the letter of February 8, 2010 from Ms. Augustine do not, in my view, articulate or sufficiently specify the particular reasons for dismissal. Neither was any evidence presented from a similar source of authority with the Band to establish the degree of prejudice Mr. Donald’s conduct caused, if any, to the employer, or whether, even solely from Metepenagiag’s perspective, that this purported conduct interfered in some substantial way with the school’s operation as opposed to being primarily a concern of the Band with paying Mr. Donald salary for days when he was not present at the school as appears to be the concern indicated in the letter of February 8, 2010.
59 In such circumstances, it is difficult, if not impossible, to assess and determine the specific reasons being relied upon by the defendant to justify the dismissal and more importantly, to determine whether or not the summary dismissal was a just dismissal in the particular circumstances of the case.
As the employee was only half way through a two year fixed contract, the employer was required to pay one years pay for a one year employee.
This case raises some interesting issues :
If the Employer does not set out in the termination letter the reasons for termination, can they even rely on just cause at trial ?
What constitutes sufficient reasons for termination?
If the Employer sets out two reasons for dismissal in the termination letter can they add a third claim later on, without having to rely on the doctrine of after acquired cause?
In the world of unionized labour relations, it is established arbitral law that an Employer must set out all the reasons for termination in the actual termination letter, and any attempt to expand the grounds later on will likely fail unless the employer can prove that it falls within the doctrine of after acquired cause .
Therefore this case should lead employers who intend to rely on just cause to give fulsome reasons in the termination letter. Not only will that insure that the Court will look at the actual merits of the reasons, but it may also have the added benefit of bringing to the attention of the plaintiff’s lawyer that the employer has a serious case of cause.
Imagine if the termination letter said ” On February 5th, 2016 at 5:01 pm, you were observed by a camera at the south warehouse exit removing four boxes of Company product and putting them in the trunk of a 2012 Chevy bearing licence plates YRS2016. We have determined that this car is registered in your name. You were shown this video at your earlier meeting. You denied that you were the person in the video.”
Now imagine that you are Plaintiffs’ potential lawyer and you read this letter. The Plaintiff tells you that this is all a lie and that there has been conspiracy against him by his boss for over 5 years.
Don’t you want to have a look at this video before you take on this file, especially if you are on a contingency fee arrangement?