Minor policy breach not enough for cause termination

14. August 2023 0

In Stevens v Port Coquitlam (City), 2022 BCCA 2090, the Supreme Court of BC had to consider whether the employer City had just cause for termination.  

The employee (Mr. Stevens) was first employed by the City for roughly seven years as a unionized employee.  In early 2018, he was seen washing his personal truck and trailer at the washing facility used to wash municipal vehicles and garbage trucks.  He was not formally disciplined but received an informal warning from his supervisor.

In late 2018, the employee was promoted to a non-union management position as a superintendent.  In this role, he was responsible for supervising and managing employees.   

In November 2020, the employee was again seen using the municipal facility to wash his truck and trailer. When confronted by his supervisor, the employee acknowledged his conduct was wrong.

On November 25, 2020, the employee’s employment was terminated for cause, and the employer cited the City’s explicit written policy prohibiting the use of municipal facilities for personal use.  

The court cited the leading case of McKinley when considering whether the “for cause” termination was justified.  The test requires a contextual approach to determine the existence of just cause.  The court emphasized the need to strike a proportional balance between the misconduct and the sanction imposed. The test is an objective one.  

The court considered each factor and held that the employee clearly understood that washing a personal vehicle was against the City policy.  However, the court noted that the misconduct was not dishonest in nature and did not involve theft or deceit.  

The court concluded that although the 2020 incident reflected poorly on the employee’s management skills, the court was not convinced that the employment relationship was damaged beyond repair. The court also stated that the City had other sanctions available to achieve the employer’s legitimate objectives and the employee’s behavior could have been corrected with discipline. Thus, the employer could not establish cause for termination. 

The court held that the employee was wrongfully dismissed and was entitled to payment in lieu of notice.  The parties agreed upon the amount of payment required.  The court awarded damages, as agreed upon by the parties, in the amount of $57,901.56. 

Key Takeaways:

This case is a good reminder that employers can only terminate an employee “for cause” in limited circumstances.  It is not every policy breach that will justify termination for cause, even if it is a second breach of the same policy.  The sanction must be proportionate to the misconduct.  If the misconduct does not involve theft or deceit, the employer may not be able to support a termination for cause and will have to rely on discipline or termination without cause.  

The link to the full decision is available here: 2022 BCSC 2090 Stevens v. Port Coquitlam (City) (bccourts.ca)

For more information on this and other similar topics, please contact Scott Marcinkow at smarcinkow@harpergrey.com or anyone else from our team listed on the Authors page.