Canada: La Cour d'appel de la Colombie-Britannique infirme une décision concernant l'octroi d'une indemnité de départ correspondant à 18 mois de salaire fondé sur une promesse verbale

La question soumise à la Cour d'appel de la Colombie-Britannique dans Aubrey v. Teck Highland Valley Copper Partnership, 2017 BCCA 144, était de savoir si l'employeur avait fait une promesse verbale à un employé de lui verser une indemnité de départ équivalant à 18 mois de salaire, soit 176 250 $, lors de son départ, qu'il s'agisse d'un départ à la retraite ou d'un congédiement.

Les faits

L'employeur, qui exploitait une mine de cuivre, comptait plus de 1 000 travailleurs syndiqués et environ 300 superviseurs, gestionnaires et employés affectés au soutien de la gestion non syndiqués. L'employeur avait pour habitude d'engager des travailleurs syndiqués pour des postes de supervision et de gestion non syndiqués et, au moment de leur embauche, de leur offrir une indemnité de départ équivalent à un mois par année de service, à concurrence de 18 ou de 24 mois, selon le poste. Deux employés, M. Jylha et M. Aubrey, ont soutenu que, lors de leur embauche à des poste non syndiqués, l'employeur leur avait verbalement promis une indemnité de départ correspondant à 18 mois de salaire lorsqu'ils prendraient leur retraite, que cette promesse constituait une modalité expressément prévue à leur contrat de travail et qu'on leur avait injustement refusé l'indemnité en question lorsqu'ils ont pris leur retraite.

Le juge de première instance a reconnu que l'employeur avait fait une promesse verbale et qu'en vertu de celle-ci, le droit des employés à l'indemnité de départ constituait une modalité verbale expresse du contrat de travail de chacun, et ce, malgré le fait que les contrats signés ne prévoyaient aucune indemnité de départ. Le juge s'est appuyé sur les éléments prouvant que l'employeur en avait discuté avec les employés, qui occupaient des postes syndiqués, lorsqu'il leur a offert un poste non syndiqué et que d'autres modalités de leur emploi ne figuraient pas à leur contrat de travail écrit. Dans le cas de M. Jylha, un élément de preuve supplémentaire indiquait qu'il avait au départ rejeté l'offre, parce qu'il estimait que son fonds de retraite comme employé syndiqué était plus intéressant, avant que l'employeur ne lui assure qu'il recevrait l'indemnité de départ lorsqu'il prendrait sa retraite ou s'il quittait la mine. Chose intéressante, le juge de première instance a également fait observer qu'une grande société dotée d'un service des ressources humaines qui traite avec des employés moins expérimentés doit énoncer clairement les modalités du contrat de travail pour éviter que des conclusions défavorables puissent être tirées du fait de l'absence de certaines dispositions expresses dans le contrat de travail.

L'employeur a interjeté appel des deux décisions, mais s'est finalement désisté de l'appel dans le dossier de M. Jylha (probablement parce que la preuve à l'effet qu'une indemnité de départ lui avait été promise en cas de retraite était plus convaincante), de sorte que la Cour d'appel a été saisie uniquement du litige entourant l'indemnité de départ correspondant à 18 mois de salaire réclamé par M. Aubrey. Dans une décision rendue en avril, la Cour d'appel a conclu que le juge de première instance avait commis une erreur en statuant que l'employeur avait promis à M. Aubrey qu'il toucherait l'indemnité au moment où il prendrait sa retraite, plutôt qu'en cas de congédiement seulement. Selon elle, même s'il ne faisait aucun doute que M. Aubrey croyait qu'on lui avait promis l'indemnité de départ s'il prenait sa retraite, rien ne prouvait que l'employeur avait réellement fait mention de la retraite lorsqu'il avait parlé d'indemnité de départ avec lui. Puisque M. Aubrey a pris sa retraite plutôt que d'être congédié, il n'y a jamais eu ouverture du droit à l'indemnité de départ en faveur de M. Aubrey.

Conclusion

La décision de la Cour d'appel confirme une fois de plus que, pour qu'une promesse verbale fasse partie intégrante d'un contrat d'emploi, elle doit être suffisamment claire, d'après l'information que les parties se sont objectivement communiquée. Par ailleurs, cette décision tient lieu d'avertissement à l'endroit des employeurs qui font ou pourraient faire des promesses lors de l'embauche d'un employé sans les consigner dans le contrat d'emploi. D'ailleurs, le fait que l'employeur se soit désisté de l'appel de la décision qui octroyait à M. Jylha une indemnité de départ de 169 800 $ en dit long. Les employeurs doivent retenir de cette décision qu'ils doivent s'assurer de préciser toutes les modalités relatives à l'emploi dans les contrats de travail, et qu'ils ne doivent pas permettre l'existence de régimes de rémunération non officiels qui ne sont pas expressément prévus dans ces contrats de travail.

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