Employment Standards Act Review:
The Employment Standards Act (2000) grants employees minimal guarantees. In terms of termination, the Employment Standards Act (ESA) provides one week of notice or pay in lieu for every year of service, for a maximum of 8 weeks. Severance pay is a separate payment that employers must provide if their payroll exceeds 2.5 million or if the employee was one of 50 employees that has been terminated within a 6-month period. In addition, employers are to provide all benefits throughout the notice period or pay in lieu. Employers are legally prohibited from contracting out of the ESA, unless the clause offers a greater benefit to the employee. In the instance where an employment contract offers less than the minimum provided under the ESA, then the provision in the contract is void. In this instance, the courts will award the employee common law notice (damages), which are often considerably more than minimal standards. A recent case heard before the Court of Appeals for Ontario highlights the importance of unambiguous language in termination clauses, as any ambiguity will render the clause unenforceable.
Facts from Wood vs. Deeley (OCA 2017):
In the case, Wood served 8 years as a Sales and Event Planner, earning about $100 000 annually including benefits. Wood’s termination clause provided 2 weeks of notice for each year served (or pay in lieu) and stated that Wood is only entitled to the terms set within the termination clause of the employment agreement. Deeley ended up paying Wood 21 weeks worth of salary, which was more than the minimum Wood would have received under the ESA. Deeley argued that the extra payment provided after termination covered Wood’s benefits. Wood argued that the termination clause was unenforceable, however, because it excluded benefit pay and severance pay as per the wording of the clause. The Appeals Court of Ontario agreed, ruling that the clause was void because it contracted out of the ESA. Only the cause itself was to be considered in terms of enforceability, which means remedies implemented afterwards are irrelevant. Wood was awarded 39 weeks of notice pay (9 months), Wood’s common law entitlement.
Main Issues in the Termination Clause:
The language used in the termination clause effectively limited Wood’s entitlements to those provided in the clause. This meant that anything not covered in the clause but guaranteed under the ESA to not apply. The ESA entitles employees to their benefits during the notice period. The clause did not mention anything about Wood’s benefits and therefore was found to contract out of the ESA.
Ambiguous use of ‘notice pay’:
The termination clause Wood was subject to provided more than the minimum required notice pay under the ESA. However, notice and severance pay are two separate entitlements under the ESA, and combining both under “pay” here created ambiguity. For example, the termination clause entitled Wood to 2 weeks notice for every year of employment, or pay in lieu. If 10 weeks were given as notice, then the remaining 6 weeks were not enough to cover the minimum amount of severance pay that Wood was entitled to under the ESA. Rather, the termination clause should have allotted the necessary amount to each, severance and notice, rather than combining both under “pay”.
This case shows that employers are held to a rigorous standard in terms of drafting employment contracts. This reflects the purpose and intentions of the ESA. The ESA aims to protect employees that are unaware of their employment rights and the court seeks to interpret these clauses in ways that encourage employers to draft clauses that comply with minimal standards. As such, when determining the legal compliance of a termination clause, only the clause itself is considered and any remedies the employer seeks to implement at the time of termination will be irrelevant to the enforceability of the clause. It is important to seek legal advice from an employment law expert to ensure termination clauses are properly drafted. Any ambiguity will either be interpreted by the courts in the most favourable way for the employee or be deemed unenforceable, which entitles the employee to common law notice (damages). Again, common law notice (damages) is usually far more than minimal standards.