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A recent Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a wrongful dismissal claim in which the trial judge had awarded the employee punitive and moral damages and costs after the finding that the employer had counter-claimed in an attempt to intimidate the employee.

What Happened?

The employee was terminated from his employment in June 2015. At that time, the employee was 54 years old. He had been hired as a sales representative by the employer in 2004 and was promoted over time, eventually becoming president and division manager.

At the time of his termination, he was told that he was being terminated for cause and that he had committed fraud, but no specifics were given.

When he indicated that he would be hiring a lawyer, the employer told him that if he did, it would counter-claim and that it would be very expensive.

About a month later, the employee filed a statement of claim seeking damages for wrongful dismissal. The employer responded with a statement of defence and counter-claim which alleged cause and claimed damages of $1.7 million for unjust enrichment, breach of fiduciary duty and fraud, as well as $50,000 in punitive damages.

Lower Court Decision

After an 11 day trial, the trial judge found that the employer had failed to prove cause against the employee and had failed to prove any of its allegations against him.

The trial judge also found that the employer’s counter-claim for damages in the amount of $1.7 million had been a tactic to intimidate the employee and that it had breached its obligation of good faith and fair dealing in the manner of his dismissal.

As a result, the judge dismissed the employer’s counterclaim in its entirety and awarded the employee significant damages, including: damages in lieu of reasonable notice based on a 19 month notice period, including bonus and benefits; punitive damages in the amount of $100,000; and moral damages in the amount of $25,000.

In total, the employee’s award amounted to $604,627. In addition, the trial judge ordered costs against the employer in the amount of $546,684 to indemnify the employee for his costs in the action.

The employer appealed the trial judge’s trial awards, alleging reversible errors in law.

The Appeal Decision

The Court of Appeal rejected the employer’s arguments regarding the 19 month notice period award and the bonus award. On both issues, the court found that the trial judge had considered the evidence and the awards were appropriate.

The court also rejected the employer’s submission that the trial judge erred in awarding aggravated and moral damages because the evidentiary record provided ample support for the trial judge’s finding that the manner of dismissal warranted an award of aggravated damages. The trial judge had found that the employer’s conduct in threatening the employee to not make a claim was calculated to cause the employee stress. The manner of dismissal was devastating and had caused him stress. The court therefore found no error of law or principle or palpable or overriding error of fact that would justify interfering with the trial judge’s award of $25,000 for aggravated damages.

The court then addressed the employer’s submission that the trial judge erred in making a punitive damages award against it in the amount of $100,000. The employer argued that the judge erred in failing to consider the punitive aspects of a substantial costs award and compensatory damages, and in awarding an amount exceeding what is rationally required to punish the misconduct and to achieve the accepted purposes of a punitive damages award.

The court rejected the employer’s argument. It found that the trial judge had carefully reviewed all of the appropriate factors, including the fact that a court “must consider the overall damages award when selecting an appropriate punitive quantum” and that it must be careful to avoid double compensation or double punishment.

The court stated that, in reaching her conclusion, the trial judge had referred to the threat by the employer during the termination meeting that if the employee sued, the employer would counter-claim – a threat which it carried out with its counter-claim alleging fraud. The trial judge had also referenced the fact that the employer had, on the seventh day of trial, reduced its damages claim from $1.7 million to $1 dollar, which led the trial judge to conclude that “it did not appear as though the [employer] had any intention of proving damages but rather was using the claim of $1,700,000 strategically to intimidate [the employee]”. These facts supported her finding of misconduct justifying a punitive damages award.

The court concluded by stating:

“There can be no question that the employer’s conduct […] rose to the level of conduct deserving of denunciation for all the reasons cited by the trial judge. The trial judge was alive to the concerns about double compensation, and to the need to consider the entire compensatory package as a whole.”

As a result, the court found that the employer has not shown any basis for this court to interfere with the punitive damages award.

Finally, the court rejected the employer’s leave to appeal the costs award of $546,684, which it argued was unfair and unreasonable. While the court recognized that the costs award was unusually high, it was not satisfied that it was unfair or unreasonable in the circumstances of this case.

The appeal was dismissed and the court awarded the employee costs of the appeal in the amount of $35,000.

Get Advice

If you have questions about unfair practices in the workplace, wrongful dismissal, or any other employment matter, contact the Mississauga employment lawyers at Campbell Bader LLP. We regularly advise both employers and employees on a wide range of issues that arise at work. Contact us online or by phone at 905-828-2247 to schedule a consultation.