Unfair Investigation Leads to Termination: Rejected by Courts

Cause for Dismissal

On March 7, 2019, Mr. Czerniawski had an argument with a co-worker. The encounter quickly became heated. Emotions were high, voices were raised and, allegedly, threats were made. Mr. Czerniawski was instructed to leave the work premises but refused to do so. Police were called and Mr. Czerniawski was escorted out of the building. He was then told not to return to the workplace until advised to do so. Despite this warning, Mr. Czerniawski appeared at work on March 11, 2019, to deliver a letter detailing his side of the story as he was never interviewed about the event.

An investigation was conducted that found Mr. Czerniawski had made his employees uncomfortable and fearful. The investigation report concluded that Mr. Czerniawski had verbally abused his co-workers and threatened them. The fact police were required to remove Mr. Czerniawski from the workplace caused fear. His return days later, uninvited, also made his employees uneasy and anxious. Notably, all these findings were made without ever hearing Mr. Czerniawski’s side of the story.

On March 14, 2019, Mr. Czerniawski was terminated. There were two stated grounds for dismissal:

  1. ) Mr. Czerniawski was acting in a threatening manner to co-workers in an attempt to intimidate them, causing them to fear he would become violent; and
  2. ) Mr. Czerniawski was insubordinate by refusing to leave the workplace and then by returning to the workplace to deliver his letter.

The events leading to Mr. Czerniawski’s termination were surprising given that, for all intents and purposes, he had a clear track record with the employer. He was known to be “highly competent” and “very dependable” and “a very solid steady worker”.

Mr. Czerniawski challenged his termination, arguing that he was wrongfully dismissed and that, despite the investigation’s findings, there was not cause for dismissal.

Was There Just Cause for Dismissal?

The trial judge was tasked with deciding whether Mr. Czerniawski’s conduct was “so grievous” as to justify dismissal without notice. In making this determination, one must consider the particular facts of the employee’s misconduct and their overall tenure and disciplinary history. The goal is to achieve proportionality: one must balance the severity of misconduct with the discipline imposed. Termination is, of course, the most severe disciplinary sanction.

In reviewing all the evidence, the trial judge came to the conclusion that the employers’ witnesses likely overstated their evidence. Despite what was alleged against him, it was “clear” on the evidence that the employee did not threaten or physically assault anybody on March 7, 2019.

The trial judge commented specifically on the decision not to involve the employee in the investigation. The trial judge stated:

“[33] I do not agree with the defence submission that everyone knew what had happened and there was no need to include the plaintiff in the investigation. While the plaintiff was aware that he had a verbal dispute over work distribution and that he failed to go home when asked to do so on March 7, 2019, he was not made aware of the particular allegations that his behaviour was threatening, offensive and intimidating, that co-workers allegedly feared violence from him and that there was a genuine concern for employees’ safety, all of which were relied upon as a basis for terminating the plaintiff’s employment.

[34] Had the plaintiff been allowed to respond to the allegations as he requested on March 7, 2019 or as part of the investigation, the employer’s decision may have been more proportional to the misconduct which occurred. While having to call the police when he refused to leave the workplace was undoubtedly upsetting to co-workers and caused a disruption of the workplace, the plaintiff returned to his own workstation after the meeting with Mr. Sandras and Mr. Beliski. He cooperated with the police when they arrived, left peaceably and there were no threats, intimidation or violence.” (emphasis added)

Ultimately, the trial judge found that Mr. Czerniawski’s conduct was “not so egregious” as to justify terminating him without notice.

The lack of a proper investigation, in this case, led to the implementation of disproportionate punishment. Had a proper investigation been conducted, the employer would have been better informed of the circumstances and would have been more likely to arrive at an appropriate punishment. In addition, a proper investigation where the employee is interviewed might actually enable the employer to properly terminate the employee in circumstances where the employee actually admits to the misconduct or does something even worse.

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