Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Summary Judgment - The Way of the Future for (Some) Wrongful Dismissal Cases

When the Supreme Court of Canada issued its decision in Hryniak v. Mauldin last year, it was not clear whether the Court's guidance on the use of summary judgment motions (under Rule 20 of the Rules of Civil Procedure) would be applicable to wrongful dismissal actions.  The Supreme Court made clear that unnecessarily protracted proceedings were not necessary in all cases, and in some cases the delays and expense of a prolonged trial could result in a denial of justice.  So what about your average allegation of wrongful dismissal?

In its recent decision in Arnone v. Theratronics Ltd., the Ontario Court of Appeal has suggested that some wrongful dismissal cases may be ideal candidates for summary judgment, in keeping with the Supreme Court's decision, particularly those where the only issue is the quantum of reasonable notice that the employee ought to have received.  In Arnone, the employer had not asserted cause for termination or any other form of justification, so the only outstanding question to be decided was the period of reasonable notice.  The plaintiff brought a motion for summary judgment under Rule 20, claiming that the matter could be disposed of in a summary fashion because there was no 'genuine issue' requiring a trial.  The motion judge agreed, and granted summary judgment to the plaintiff.

On appeal, the employer argued that the motion judge had erred as there was disagreement between the parties as to whether the plaintiff was a supervisor or a manager, a factor going to the analysis of appropriate notice under Bardal v. The Globe & Mail Ltd.  The Court of Appeal rejected this argument, finding that the judge had sufficient material before him, including documentary evidence submitted by the employer, that would allow him to make a determination without conducting a trial.  Moreover, the employee had conceded, for purposes of the motion, that he may have been supervisory rather than managerial.  The Court observed that this objection did not necessitate a full trial, particularly as the nature of the employment was only one Bardal factor to be considered in determining reasonable notice.  The Court then stated:
Finally, while the appropriateness of bringing a summary judgment motion must be assessed in the particular circumstances of each case, a straight-forward claim for wrongful dismissal without cause, such as the present one, strikes me as the type of case usually amenable to a Rule 20 summary judgment motion.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the motion judge had not erred, as there was no genuine issue for trial (although other aspects of the judge's decision were altered on the appeal).

Provided parties to a wrongful dismissal case marshal the necessary documentary and affidavit evidence, it is likely that the courts will be prepared to entertain summary judgment motions in most 'notice period' cases. Hearing a motion is much more timely and cost-effective, and preserves judicial resources that would otherwise be expended hearing a trial.  If there are factual issues that require a more thorough analysis, employers will have to persuade a motion judge that documentary evidence and affidavits are insufficient to resolve the dispute.  It will therefore be imperative that employers ensure that they prepare for a summary judgment motion as if it may be determinative.  In many cases, it could be. 

Do you have questions about wrongful dismissals?  Need guidance to make sure that the notice provided is "reasonable"?  Contact Lance Ceaser for expert advice.

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