In 2016, Melissa Ojanen ("Ojanen"), an articling student at Acumen Law Corporation ("Acumen"), was terminated by her employer only four months after she began her articles. Acumen commenced a claim against Ojanen for theft, breach of contract, trespass for entering Acumen's premises after hours without permission, and wrongful use of Acumen's marketing materials after Acumen discovered a legal blog providing information for persons facing a driving prohibition similar to blogs maintained by Acumen. In response, Ojanen counterclaimed for wrongful dismissal, claiming that Acumen had no just cause to terminate her articles.
British Columbia Supreme Court Decision
The British Columbia Supreme Court dismissed Acumen's claims against Ojanen and allowed Ojanen's wrongful dismissal claim. The Court dismissed Acumen's claims against Ojanen, finding that the claims were not supported by evidence. The Court also dismissed the allegation that Ojanen was attempting to compete against Acumen through the blog on the basis that Ojanen was not in a position to compete against the firm. Regarding Ojanen's wrongful dismissal claim, the Court determined that Acumen's allegations of misconduct, taken individually and together, did not constitute a valid cause of dismissal or for a unilateral termination of the articling agreement. The Court awarded Ojanen $18,934 in general damages and $50,000 in aggravated damages, finding that Acumen's actions were unfair and undertaken in bad faith.
British Columbia Court of Appeal
Acumen appealed the lower court's decision, arguing that it had failed to consider the context of the special relationship between a principal and an articled student mandated by the rules and requirements of the Law Society of British Columbia. Acumen argued that the trial judge had not properly considered the context of the employment relationship and therefore had arrived at incorrect conclusions about whether there was just cause to terminate the articling relationship. Ojanen argued that the judge had applied the correct contextual analysis and appealed the trial judge's damages assessment, alleging that the trial judge had erred in failing to award her punitive damages.
Principal-Articled Student Relationship
The British Columbia Court of Appeal concluded that the principal-articled student relationship is not governed by any different or unique employment law or common law principles. Referring to McKinley v. BC Tel, the Court affirmed that common law employment principles related to just cause require a contextual approach, which includes consideration of all the circumstances, such as the nature of the employment relationship and the position of the employee.
In taking this approach, the Court determined that the principal-articled student relationship consisted of an employment relationship governed by common law employment principles and an articling relationship governed by statutory authority exercised by the Law Society. A principal's loss of trust in an articled student is not determinative of whether just cause exists to terminate the employment contract. As such, common law employment principles can be applied to the employment relationship between a principal and articled student. The Court of Appeal found that the trial judge correctly applied common law employment principles and found that Acumen did not have cause to dismiss Ojanen.
The Court of Appeal determined that the award of general damages should be increased by $100,000 and also awarded $25,000 in punitive damages. In considering an award for punitive damages, the Court referred to the factors listed in Whiten v. Pilot Insurance to determine whether, in light of Acumen's conduct, the compensatory damages awarded to Ojanen were sufficient to accomplish the objectives of denunciation, deterrence, and retribution. The Court of Appeal determined that Acumen's unwarranted accusations and allegations against Ojanen, as well as the decision to publicly serve Ojanen in front of her classmates, could be considered malicious or highly reprehensible conduct that markedly departs from ordinary standards of decent behaviour. The Court awarded punitive damages against Acumen and Ojanen's articling principal jointly and severally.
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