Terminating an Employee for Cause: A Cautionary Tale

Today, we share a little cautionary tale of what happens when employers “go rogue” and fire employees without first consulting an employment lawyer. No, not just any old lawyer will do, it should be one that practices employment law. Why, you ask? Because the employer that (literally) pays dearly for their misstep in today’s story is a B.C. law firm, a criminal law firm.

Our story begins in 2016, when the law firm in question, had an articling student in their employ who blogged about legal issues. When the blog came to the attention of a partner of the law firm, the partner, jumping to conclusions, thought the articling student’s blog threatened the firm’s competitive position.

Donning his investigative hat, the partner used an alias and made a legal inquiry to the articling student on her blog. Eventually, the partner received a response from the articling student, who identified herself as a law student at the partner’s firm and recommended that the inquirer retain a lawyer (from any firm) to assist with their legal problem.

Two days later, the law firm, in a very public display, served the articling student with a termination letter and a notice of civil claim. They didn’t stop there; the partner even filed a report with the Law Society of British Columbia. The articling student responded by filing a claim of her own for wrongful dismissal.

At trial, the judge sided with the articling student. In the judge’s opinion, the law firm’s conduct was unfair and insensitive. As the employer, the law firm should have given the articling student an opportunity to address the law firm’s concerns rather than assuming the worst with no evidence to back up their accusations. The trial judge found that the employer had acted like a bully, and that their response to the articling student’s blog was excessive. Most important, the law firm’s very deliberate actions had left the articling student unemployable.  

The end result – the law firm was ordered to pay $68,934 to the articling student for her dismissal.

The End.

If only, right?  In actuality, the law firm just couldn’t let it go, and appealed the decision. Last month the B.C. Court of Appeal released their ruling to the public.

The Court of Appeal… *cue drumroll* …ultimately increased the damages owed by the law firm to the articling student to a whopping $193,934.

So not only was the law firm required to pay more, but they gained even greater notoriety for their actions.  

Remember, the standard to successfully terminate “for cause” is very high. While an employer may feel wronged by an employee and think they have grounds to terminate for cause, in most cases they shouldn’t go that route.

Like any good cautionary tale, you need a lesson and here it is: don’t make decisions based on emotions or whims, get a legal opinion from someone actually qualified to provide it, and don’t become someone else’s cautionary tale.

Robin K. Mann, Associate Lawyer