On January 19, 2016 the Supreme Court of Canada will hear arguments in the case of Joseph Wilson v. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (“AECL”) (2015 FCA 17). The case involves the proper interpretation of certain provisions of the Canada Labour Code (“Code”) and whether an employee whose employment is subject to the Code, if dismissed without cause, has automatically been unjustly dismissed.
In this case, AECL had employed Mr. Wilson for four and a half years. Starting out as a Senior Buyer/Order Administrator, Mr. Wilson had received many promotions. His last position was Procurement Supervisor, Tooling. That position was not managerial. On November 16, 2009, AECL terminated Mr. Wilson’s employment without cause. AECL offered Mr. Wilson a severance package equal to roughly six months’ pay in exchange for a full and final release. Had his severance package been determined in accordance with the minimum statutory notice and severance requirements under the Code, he would have been entitled to only 18 days’ pay.
Mr. Wilson did not sign the release. Instead he filed a complaint under Part III of the Code alleging that he had been unjustly dismissed. At the request of his counsel, Mr. Wilson remained on AECL’s payroll for roughly six months, continuing his access to AECL’s employee benefit programs. In the end he received the full amount of the severance package AECL had originally offered to him.
An adjudicator was appointed to hear Mr. Wilson’s complaint under the Code. In the agreed statement of facts placed before the adjudicator, the parties identified two “preliminary questions”: 1. Whether as a matter of statutory interpretation AECL could lawfully terminate Mr. Wilson’s employment on a without cause basis; and 2. If so, whether the severance package gave rise to a "just dismissal".
The adjudicator accepted Mr. Wilson's submission that dismissal without cause is, by that reason alone, unjust dismissal within the meaning of the Code and that he was therefore entitled to a remedy.
Having made that decision, the adjudicator adjourned the hearing, directing the parties to discuss the appropriate remedy in the hopes that it might settle. Absent settlement, he intended to conduct a hearing to determine whether a remedy was warranted and if so what it should be.
AECL applied to the Federal Court for judicial review of the adjudicator’s decision. The Federal Court dismissed the appellant’s objection that the judicial review was preliminary and found that the adjudicator’s statutory interpretation decision was unreasonable. The Federal Court quashed the adjudicator’s decision and remitted the matter back to the adjudicator for decision.
On further appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal, the court dismissed Mr. Wilson’s appeal.
The Federal Court of Appeal found that the proper interpretation of the Code had created two schools of thought which have persisted for decades. The key consideration by the court was whether Part III of the Code ousted the common law of dismissal or whether it accepts the common law as given, supplementing and building upon it. At common law, an employer could dismiss a non-unionized employee without cause, but is liable to provide reasonable notice or compensation in lieu of notice. If the employee is given such notice, he or she is not wrongfully dismissed.
The Federal Court found that the provisions found in Part III of the Code do not represent a sea-change in the law of dismissal but rather enhance the remedies that may be available in appropriate cases of dismissal. It will always be for the adjudicator to assess the circumstances and determine whether the dismissal, whether or not for cause, was unjust. The dismissal of an employee without cause is not automatically unjust.
Part III of the Code sets out a complaints mechanism and remedies for “unjust” dismissal. Specifically, a subsection of the Code empowers an adjudicator to “consider whether the dismissal of the person who made the complaint was unjust”. The Code does not define unjust. The Federal Court of Appeal examined whether Part III ousted the common law of employment or supplemented and built upon it as set out in that subsection.
In reaching its decision, the Federal Court of Appeal held that the legislator is presumed not to depart from prevailing common law. Such prevailing common law can be ousted only by way of explicit language or necessary implication. An example of necessary implication is where the legislator has provided for something that conflicts with the common law so that the two can no longer live together. The common law is not ousted unless Parliament has expressed its intentions to do so with “irresistible clearness”. The Code does not contain text or necessary implication that can be taken to oust the aspects of the common law of employment. The Code was enacted against the backdrop of the common law and does not explicitly oust it in this respect.
Wilson has obtained leave to appeal from this decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.
AECL's case at the FCA was argued by my partner Ron Snyder. I will keep you posted.