In the 2001 case of McKinley v. B.C. Tel, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a contextual approach is required in order to determine whether there is just cause for termination of employment. A recent wrongful dismissal case involving receipt of pornographic material illustrates how the contextual approach will be applied by courts.
In February 2013, the Court of Appeal of New Brunswick upheld a lower court finding in the case of Asurion Canada v. Brown and Cormier, to the effect that dismissal without notice was a disproportionately severe penalty for receiving pornographic emails at work. At the time of termination, Cormier had been with Asurion for 8 years and was a call centre supervisor. Brown was employed by Asurion for 9 years and was vendor payables specialist. Both men had a good employment history with the company. Both men, unfortunately, also had a mutual friend who liked to send them pornographic emails.
During the period from mid May to mid July 2010, Cormier and Brown were sent over a dozen unsolicited emails from their friend. The emails were promptly sent to home email accounts and deleted. They were not shared with anyone at work. When Asurion became aware of the emails in July as a result of its network monitoring system, both men were dismissed immediately due to breach of the company’s policies and breach of trust.
While the company did have a policy which prohibited “accessing, transmitting, receiving or storing discriminatory, profane, harassing or defamatory information”, the court found that the policy was not reasonable given that: (i) ”receiving” information does not involve a positive act; and (ii) the emails in question were unsolicited. More importantly, the court confirmed that the response of the company was not proportionate to the actions of the employees. In particular, these longstanding employees had unblemished records, none of the emails were shared with fellow employees, and the images attached to the emails fell within the category of “perfectly legal adult pornography” and were not in violation of the Criminal Code of Canada.
Asurion had an employee handbook with a comprehensive Computer Use and Harassment policy. The company’s employees were required to read the company’s policies and there was some suggestion that they were reminded of the Computer Use policy each time that they logged onto their work computers. The company went even further, and used a network monitoring system in order to ensure that the policies were being complied with. Ultimately it was all for naught, as the policy was found to be unreasonable and the application of it was disproportionately severe when viewed through the lens of the employees’ years of service and specific actions or inactions in the case at hand.
This recent decision serves as a good reminder that any time a termination for cause is being considered, the employer should consider not just the offending actions of the employee, but the other relevant circumstances of the employee’s employment.
Asurion Canada Inc. v. Brown and Cormier, 2013 NBCA 13 (CanLII)