An increasingly common theme in wrongful dismissal actions are employee claims that an employer's allegedly heavy-handed and insensitive management constitutes a constructive dismissal.
A recent case from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice confirms that employers remain able to manage their workplace even when employees disagree or are unhappy with that management.
In Debon v Hillfield Strathallen College, a teacher claimed that her school had constructively dismissed her. Specifically, the teacher pointed to several incidents that she said individually and cumulatively breached the contract of employment:
- Following a dispute over marks with a student and her mother, the administration refused to allow the teacher to communicate only with the student and required the administration to handle any future parent-teacher conferences;
- Two incidents wherein the administration changed a student's mark over the teacher's objection; and
- Alleged discrimination relating to the teacher's maternity leave, including the administration's request that she teach a history class upon her return (despite being hired to teach English), and the administration's inability to continue her benefits due to her part-time hours initially upon her return.
The teacher also suggested that the school had moved her personal belongings while she was on maternity leave.
The Court considered the requirements for a constructive dismissal, noting that the employee must show that the employer's conduct demonstrates the employer's intention to no longer be bound by the employment contract.
In respect of the disputes over marks and the conflict between the teacher, her student, and the student's parents, the Court stated that it was reasonable for management to intervene where it thought it was warranted. Notably, the Court did not endorse management's interventions as being objectively appropriate. However, it noted that management had the right to intervene, and regardless of its reasons or the wisdom of how it did so, it was not contrary to the employment contract.
In respect of the alleged discrimination, the Court noted that the request to teach history was withdrawn once the teacher reminded the administration that she had been hired to teach only English. The Court further found that it was not discriminatory for the employee's benefits to be reduced during her part-time employment if that was pursuant to the plan.
The Court noted that the teacher was unable to point to any policy or procedure which had been breached by the administration in its dealings with the teacher. While there were times where communication had been less than ideal, the incidents involved were not egregious enough to constitute a breach of the employment contract.
Absent an indication that the school had breached its own policies and procedures, neither the individual nor cumulative impact of the school's conduct constituted a fundamental breach of the employment contract.
The Court also noted that the teacher's discontent was insufficient to create a situation where she had no choice but to resign. If she were unhappy with management, her recourse was to seek out positions at other schools.
As a result of these findings the claim for damages was dismissed.
Despite the result in this case, employers should take note that there is an apparent rise in the frequency of similarly framed constructive dismissal claims. Strong, consistently enforced policies may assist management in defending itself from such allegations. However, those policies must be flexible enough to allow management to respond to situations as they arise.
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