A recent decision by the New Brunswick King’s Bench (the “Court”), Cumberland v Maritime College of Forest Technology [Cumberland], provided clarity on the importance of warning employees about their misconduct and utilizing a system of progressive discipline before an employer can establish just cause for dismissal.

Facts

The employee worked for the employer, a forestry college, as an academic instructor for seven years before he was dismissed with cause. The termination letter provided several reasons for the with-cause dismissal, which the Court summarized as follows:

  • The employee’s interactions and communications with students inside and outside the classroom, which included preventing late students from attending his classes, adjusting the time in the classroom so students would think they were arriving late, physically removing and confiscating students’ hats until they apologized to him, and making offensive comments in his classroom;
  • The employee’s conduct at the Forest New Brunswick seminars in January 2018, which included undermining the content of the seminars and discouraging students from attending the seminars; and
  • The employee’s relationship with his co-workers, and in particular two of his supervisors, the Executive Director and the Academic Chair, which included making disparaging remarks, failing to adhere to instructions from the Academic Chair, and engaging in harassing conduct that caused embarrassment and reputational damage to the employer.

The employee commenced an action for wrongful dismissal. The employee argued that his dismissal was carried out in a “vindictive” manner, and the reasons relied upon by the employer for the dismissal, as set out in the termination letter, were not shared with him prior to his dismissal.

Decision

The Court found that the employer failed to establish just cause for dismissal, and that the employee was therefore entitled to damages arising out of his wrongful dismissal.

Interestingly, the Court concurred with the employer’s description of the employee’s interactions with students and colleagues as “unacceptable”, and further characterized the insubordination the employee demonstrated towards his supervisors as “simply untenable”. The Court commented that had these issues been properly brought to the employee’s attention and further ignored by the employee—which the Court noted the employee was likely to do, given the “rigidity of [the employee’s] mindset”—the circumstances would have “easily paved the way for a just cause dismissal”.

However, the employer never brought such issues to the employee’s attention, and without proper notification by the employer to provide clear warnings to the employee, the Court ultimately held that the employer failed to establish just cause. The Court reiterated that absent a single act that is egregious enough to warrant a summary dismissal, the employer must demonstrate it has employed a system of progressive discipline leading up to the dismissal, allowing the employee an opportunity to address their behaviour.

Takeaways for Employers

Cumberland underscores the significance of transparency and due process in establishing termination for just cause. Employers must communicate clearly, address issues promptly, and follow a structured approach to discipline. By doing so, they can strengthen their position when just cause is a consideration. When considering a termination for just cause, employers should note the following:

  1. Clear and Timely Communication is Key: Establishing just cause necessitates open communication. Employers must make employees aware of any misconduct and give them an opportunity to address the issues. Prompt action should be taken as soon as the employer becomes aware of the misconduct and decides on a course of action.
  2. Progressive Discipline Matters: Implementing progressive discipline is a best practice, as it allows for a structured approach to addressing employee behavior, giving them a chance to improve.
  3. Documentation is Essential: Employers should meticulously document all incidents, complaints, and discussions related to employee behavior. This documentation can be crucial in establishing just cause.

This blog is provided as an information service and summary of workplace legal issues.

This information is not intended as legal advice.