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Employee Beaten Up Then Interrogated = No Just Cause
Ketch v Meadow Lake Mechanical Pulp Ltd., 2023 SKKB 241 is a new Saskatchewan Court of King’s Bench decision where an employee who developed a relationship with a summer student was terminated, purportedly for just cause. The Court disagreed.
This case is important because it illustrates that significant evidence of misconduct is required in order to establish just cause for termination of employment.
The following were the facts summarized by the SKKB:
- The Plaintiff employee, Jim Ketch, was a shift supervisor for the employer Meadow Lake Mechanical Pulp Inc (MLM)
- MLM has a progressive discipline policy which usually requires discussion and then warnings before termination of employment
- Ketch was friends with another employee, R, and knew R’s family socially as well
- In 2015, R’s daughter M was hired as a summer student. Ketch was 45 and she was 20
- Ketch and M gradually developed feelings towards one another and spent more time together- such as lunch and extended breaks
- Ketch told R about the situation and that he wanted to start seeing M. R was not happy about this. He tried to convince his daughter to stop seeing Mr. Ketch, and started a campaign at work of slander against Mr. Ketch, including that he routinely employed prostitutes and probably had an STD
- The plaintiff and another employee made a complaint to Human Resources about R’s actions. HR told R to stop, but he persisted
- In April 2016, M moved in with Mr. Ketch. This triggered R and his two sons to barge into Mr. Ketch’s house and beat him up. The police came and that report went to HR
- HR called Mr. Ketch in for a meeting, which turned out to be more like a cross examination of Mr. Ketch about the excessive time he had been spending with M the prior summer (note: they were not dating at that time)
- In due course after that meeting, Mr. Ketch was terminated from employment, purportedly for just cause in May of 2016. The termination letter described the reasons as:
- Starting a relationship with M, the summer student daughter of R, and not disclosing this to management
- Engaging in bow hunting for gophers on company property during working hours
- Dishonestly interfering with M’s job application process in 2016, and dishonestly misrepresenting his job title in a Return to Work form
- Work attendance and performance deterioration over the last year
- Becoming agitated during the investigation, not taking responsibility, and not demonstrating remorse
- At the time of termination, he had worked for MLM for 24 years and was about 46 years old
Analysis / Conclusion
The Court noted that to assess whether the employer had just cause, it was useful to go through the reasons the employer provided and see whether the misconduct occurred and whether it was serious enough on the whole to justify termination for cause, as opposed to some lesser discipline sanction.
Regarding starting a relationship with M, the Court found calling it a “relationship” during M’s summer term was an overstatement, and there was nothing to disclose.
Regarding the allegation of bow hunting for gophers on company property / time, the Court did not accept that this even occurred. The Court found that they did go bow shooting at a shooting center during night shift a few times, but things like an employee washing their car and other personal activities were somewhat tolerated during slow times. The Court found that this extra time together during night shift was inappropriate, but it was not serious enough for just cause.
Regarding the allegation that Mr. Ketch interfered with M’s job application in 2016, what actually happened was that the website was down and Mr. Ketch helped M get the paper application in on time.
Regarding the allegation that Mr. Ketch made a misrepresentation on a return to work form, the Court found that what actually occurred was innocent, especially since there was no persuasive reason suggested by the employer for why he would put an incorrect title for himself on the form.
Regarding the allegation of poor attendance, the Court found there was no evidence of that.
Regarding the allegation of poor job performance, the Court noted that it would have expected to have heard from the on-site manager of the plant and the plaintiff’s supervisor on this issue, but did not. The Court therefore inferred there was no deterioration in job performance.
Regarding the allegation that Mr. Ketch was agitated during the investigation, the Court noted that his agitation was understandable given that he had just been beaten up and was then being interrogated.
The Court did not really analyze the point about refusal to take responsibility and lack of remorse, but it is implicit in the reasoning that in the circumstances of how this investigation took place, the plaintiff’s behavior in that meeting was not misconduct.
The Court found that, overall, there was no nearly sufficient misconduct to establish just cause for dismissal.
The Court awarded the plaintiff 24 months of reasonable notice, which is the rough upper limit of reasonable notice (severance).
I am somewhat surprised this one went to trial, although its always easier to say that once we know the facts found by the Trial Judge.
There is an unstated undercurrent in this case about the employer’s attitude. Reading between the lines it seemed relatively clear that the employer did not approve of the relationship that developed between M and the Plaintiff. It looks to me like this really was the entire basis for the termination of employment.
However, that developing relationship was objectively not enough for termination of employment in these circumstances.
I would also note: even if the Plaintiff had not been beaten up just before the interrogation the employer gave him, I do not think they were close to just cause, but the proximity of the beating to the interrogation certainly did not help their position.
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