What is “just cause” when terminating an employee without notice?
Where one’s employment is terminated for cause, and just cause exists, then he or she is not entitled to severance. However, sometimes employers terminate employees, alleging just cause, when there is insufficient grounds to do so. In these circumstances, employees have been successful in suing their former employers for wrongful dismissal damages. For example, this was recently the case in Grober v. 532470 B.C. Ltd, 2022 BCSC 383, a March 10, 2022 judgment.
Dismissal for cause is the most severe punishment known to Canadian employment law. It is referred to as the “capital punishment” of employment law and only the most egregious misconduct can justify it: Grober at para. 62 citing George v. Cowichan Tribes, 2015 BCSC 513 at para. 109.
Just cause exists when the employee’s misconduct is found to have given rise to a breakdown in the employment relationship: McKinley v. BC Tel, 2001 SCC 38 at paragraph 48. Just cause concerns conduct which goes to the root of the employment contract and fundamentally strikes at the heart of the employment relationship. The test is an objective one, viewed through the lens of a reasonable employer taking account of all relevant circumstances: Roe v. British Columbia Ferry Services Ltd., 2015 BCCA 1 at para. 35.
Determining just cause is a factual inquiry, involving a contextual examination of the nature and circumstances of the misconduct. This involves (1) determining the nature and extent of the misconduct; (2) considering the surrounding circumstances; and (3) deciding whether dismissal is warranted (i.e. whether dismissal is a proportional response): Dowling v. Ontario (Workplace Safety & Insurance Board) (2004), 2004 CanLII 43692 (ON CA).
It is incumbent upon the employer, as part of the contextual analysis, to consider the suitability of alternative disciplinary measures to dismissal: George at paragraph 115. An effective balance must be struck between the severity of an employee’s misconduct and the sanction imposed.
Where there are multiple allegations of misconduct, the court is entitled to consider the cumulative effect of the employee’s misconduct: Golob v. Fort St. John (City), 2021 BCSC 2192 at paragraph 55.
Given the foregoing law, an employer or employee may want to verify with a lawyer whether “just cause” exists in their circumstance. If you are an employer, insufficient grounds for just cause can have significant implications (i.e. potential lawsuit against you for wrongful dismissal damages). If you are an employee and have been dismissed for cause, but the facts do not warrant a just cause dismissal, then you may have a wrongful dismissal claim.
This blog post is only a brief summary of the law on “just cause” terminations. Whether you are an employer or employee who would like to know if “just cause” exists, please consider contacting us for an assessment.