Ontario Court of Appeal Explains Difference Between Common Law Just Cause and ESA Wilful Misconduct :

In Render v. ThyssenKrupp Elevator (Canada) Limited, 2022 ONCA 310 Justices Feldman, Pepall and Tulloch reviewed a trial decision in which a long service employee was found to have been terminated for just cause because he slapped a female co-worker on her buttocks.

The court upheld the trial judges’ termination that this single incident amounted to just cause under the common law but found that it did not constitute wilful misconduct under the ESA. The net result was that the Plaintiff was awarded only his ESA entitlements.

This is what the Court said on this issue :

[79]       The law on the interpretation of the prohibition sections has been consistently stated to require more than what is required for just cause for dismissal at common law. In Plester v. Polyone Canada Inc., 2011 ONSC 6068, 2012 C.L.L.C. 210-022, aff’d 2013 ONCA 47, 2013 C.L.L.C. 210-015 (the reasons on appeal found it unnecessary to address this point), Wein J. explained that in order to be disentitled from the ESA entitlements under the “wilful misconduct” standard in the Regulation, the employee must do something deliberately, knowing they are doing something wrong. In the case before Wein J., the conduct was not preplanned and not “wilful” in the sense required under the test, which she described as follows at paras. 55-57:

The test is higher than the test for “just cause”.

“In addition to providing that the misconduct is serious, the employer must demonstrate, and this is the aspect of the standard which distinguishes it from ‘just cause’, that the conduct complained of is ‘wilful’. Careless, thoughtless, heedless, or inadvertent conduct, no matter how serious, does not meet the standard. Rather, the employer must show that the misconduct was intentional or deliberate. The employer must show that the employee purposefully engaged in conduct that he or she knew to be serious misconduct. It is, to put it colloquially, being bad on purpose”.

Both counsel seemed to be slightly bemused by the recent authorities that distinguish between the definition of just cause and wilful misconduct. In my view, however, the distinction is quite obvious: Just cause involves a more objective test, albeit one that takes into account a contextual analysis and therefore has subjective elements. Wilful misconduct involves an assessment of subjective intent, almost akin to a special intent in criminal law. It will be found in a narrower cadre of cases: cases of wilful misconduct will almost inevitably meet the test for just cause but the reverse is not the case.

The conduct of Mr. Plester was serious, and his failure to report deliberate. However, it did not rise to the very high test set for disentitlement to the statutory notice benefit. It was not preplanned and not wilful in the sense required under this test. There was an element of spontaneity in the act itself and at most a “deer in the headlights” freezing of intellect in the delay in reporting. On these facts willful misconduct should not be found. [Emphasis added.]

[80]       The differing standards at common law and under the ESA are further discussed in a number of cases, as well as in the Ministry of Labour’s Employment Standards Act Policy and Interpretation Manual (2020). The Manual states: “this exemption is narrower than the just cause concept applied in the common law and in collective agreement disputes. In other words, an arbitrator or a judge may find that there was just cause to dismiss an employee, but this does not necessarily mean that the exemption in paragraph 3 of s. 2(1) applies.” This principle has also been followed in a number of other authorities: see, e.g., Lamontagne v. J.L. Richards & Associates Limited, 2021 ONSC 8049, 75 C.C.E.L. (4th) 86, at paras. 16, 19, leave to appeal to Ont. C.A. requested, M53078; Cummings v. Quantum Automotive Group Inc., 2017 ONSC 1785, at para. 73; Ojo v. Crystal Claire Cosmetics Inc.,2021 ONSC 1428, 60 C.C.P.B. (2nd) 200, at para. 14; and Khashaba v. Procom Consultants Group Ltd., 2018 ONSC 7617, 52 C.C.E.L. (4th) 89, at para. 53.

[81]       In my view, the appellant’s conduct does not rise to the level of wilful misconduct required under the Regulation. While the trial judge found that the touching was not accidental, he made no finding that the conduct was preplanned. Indeed, his findings with respect to the circumstances of the touching are consistent with the fact that the appellant’s conduct was done in the heat of the moment in reaction to a slight. Although his conduct warranted dismissal for cause, it was not the type of conduct in the circumstances in which it occurred that was intended by the legislature to deprive an employee of his statutory benefits.

My Comments :

First of all I should note that my son, Matthew Fisher was trial counsel for the Plaintiff. However Chris Foulon was counsel for the Plaintiff at the Court of Appeal.

Secondly, this case sets out with great precision how difficult it is to prove wilful misconduct now that the  employer must prove a subjective intent, almost akin to the criminal test of intent.

If you wish a copy of this case, please email me at barry@barryfisher.ca