In a recently released decision, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal was tasked with determining whether or not an employer, the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority Inc., had just cause to terminate an employee by the name of Mr. Thomas. In answering this question, the Court of Appeal provided a helpful outline of the legal principles governing just cause terminations.
Why Was Mr. Thomas Fired?
In the summer of 2018, Mr. Thomas was one of three candidates for a promotion to a management position with the employer. By this time, he had already been with the employer for eight years. Unfortunately for Mr. Thomas, he was not selected for the promotion. It went to another candidate – a woman. Upon hearing this news, Mr. Thomas allegedly became “angry and aggressive.” He accused his superior of being a racist and argued that he would have had a better chance of being promoted if he had “cut his own balls off.” In his opinion, the employer’s explanations as to why he was not selected were “bullshit.” The entire ordeal left Mr. Thomas’ superior “quite shaken up” and fearful that Mr. Thomas would follow him to his home.
Mr. Thomas was ultimately fired from his employment on October 22, 2018 with cause, twelve days after his angry outburst.
Trial Judge: Just Cause for Termination
Mr. Thomas disagreed with the decision and filed a Statement of Claim with the Court of Queen’s Bench on November 19, 2021. His claim was dismissed. According to the trial judge, the employer had just cause to dismiss him as a result of the meeting he had with his superior. During that meeting, the trial judge found that Mr. Thomas had “engaged in misconduct that is incompatible with the fundamental terms of the employment relationship.” Mr. Thomas was found to have been insubordinate by threatening and belittling his superior. His conduct destroyed the capacity for he and his employer to trust one another and to work together, two aspects that are fundamental to continued employment. In the end, the employer had just cause to terminate Mr. Thomas without notice or severance pay.
On Appeal: Termination Upheld
The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal was tasked with deciding whether or not the trial judge had erred in finding there had been just cause to terminate Mr. Thomas. In doing so, the Court provided a very useful summarization of the law surrounding just cause. They raised several points, which I will summarize here:
- 1) Determining whether an employee’s conduct amounts to just cause for dismissal involves a contextual analysis with an eye to proportionality;
- 2) The key question is whether, in the circumstances, the behavior of the employee was such that the employment relationship could no longer viably exist;
- 3) Dismissal is warranted when the misconduct is sufficiently serious that it strikes at the heart of the employment relationship;
- 4) Whether misconduct amounts to just cause for dismissal is a question of mixed fact and law;
- 5) The particular label attached to the category of misconduct (i.e., whether it be characterized as insubordination or insolence) does not govern the determination; and
- 6) The applicable standard of review is one of palpable and overriding error, unless an extricable error of law or principle is identified.
In applying these principles to Mr. Thomas’ termination, the Court of Appeal found that the trial judge had made no error in their determination, other than that they likely should have said Mr. Thomas was insolent rather than insubordinate. Nevertheless, the trial judge “kept his focus in the right place, namely, the seriousness of the misconduct and its effect on the continuing viability of the employment relationship.” Therefore, the Court dismissed Mr. Thomas’ appeal and upheld the trial judge’s determination that he had been dismissed for just cause.