A manager who privately sent an email at work that was highly derogatory towards his subordinate, as well as a human resources manager, was fired for just cause according to the BC Supreme Court. In Nagy v William L. Rutherford (B.C.) Limited, 2020 BCSC 324, the plaintiff’s wrongful dismissal claim was dismissed, and the defendant’s just cause defense succeeded, although the derogatory email in question was not discovered until after the plaintiff had already been dismissed.
The plaintiff, a 63 year old licenced customs broker, was employed for approximately 4 years with the defendant, a customs broker and freight forwarder. As Head Office Customs Import Manager, the plaintiff was responsible for managing a team of 8 to 9 customs agents.
At the time of hire in 2014, the plaintiff received and accepted an offer of employment that stated, in part, that his role and responsibilities would include “general harmonious relations with all depts, staff and clients.” Follow up correspondence between the plaintiff and the defendant shortly after continued to emphasize the importance of maintaining harmonious relationships.
Despite the defendant’s emphasis on maintaining harmonious relationships, the Court noted a number of instances during the employment where the plaintiff’s conduct was problematic.
On February 1, 2017, the defendant’s vice-president, Edmond Wong, sent an email to the plaintiff and another employee warning them against conflict, stating in part that “I hope we can shed our personal agendas aside and work in harmony and efficiently with each other and any other outside party…I want an end to the bickering and nonsensical comments, emails, discussions.”
The following day, Mr. Wong sent a formal warning to the plaintiff regarding his behaviour:
…Michael needs to be addressed and apologized to.
Your email yesterday to Michael was out of line and condescending.
It is obvious that your tone and delivery of message are an issue.
This is an official notice and is in your file.
And then on June 29, 2018, Mr. Wong testified, he received a complaint from one of the plaintiff’s subordinates that the plaintiff was making derogatory comments regarding coworkers. Mr. Wong warned the plaintiff that he needed to conduct himself in a responsible manner. In response, the plaintiff stated that he saw three possible outcomes. He would:
- Remain at work and sue the defendant
- Resign and sue the defendant; or
- Take stress leave and sue the defendant
On November 20, 2018, the plaintiff sent an email to two other employees, discussing the shipping documents of a customer, which stated:
Hi guys – I am ASSuming that they want us to arrange pickup?
Upon becoming aware of the email, Mr. Wong came to speak to the plaintiff towards the end of the day. The plaintiff became upset, as he viewed the email as a joke, and then spontaneously stated that he quit and left work for the day.
The plaintiff returned to work the next day, on November 21, 2018. Mr. Wong questioned why he was there. The plaintiff stated that he had reconsidered and regretted their discussion from the previous day. After Mr. Wong went to consult with the defendant’s owner/CEO and central human resources manager, the plaintiff sent an email to Mr. Wong stating:
Edmond – once again the hostility towards me is prevalent.
Brad sure did not seem like I had insulted him in this reply. Did Erik take this email as an insult as well? How is my trying to make a joke by using ASS in assuming, calling Brad an ass? My reply to his email used the same word and spelling, as well as spelling right as write, as a joke. Was that taken as an insult as well?
This refreshes the Shareen situation with Michael McKay when Shareen went directly to Michael McKay accusing me of saying things I had not said. What happened to that harassment complaint of mine Edmond? I would like a reply to the status of that situation, as well as this one.
It is very clear and obvious to me that I cannot say anything to any of the RGL staff for fear that an innocent comment/remark/joke is immediately taken as an insult. Further, your first reaction and attitude is not of support towards me, but rather of blame and accusation. This makes it extremely difficult to work in this environment Edmond, one that has been fostering for some time now. And for this I point the finger at Michael McKay and his poisoning of his staff on their opinion about me.
Shortly afterwards, the plaintiff was asked to leave. The plaintiff packed his belongings and left.
After the termination of the employment, the defendant discovered an August 30, 2017 email that had been sent by the plaintiff to another employee at work (a subordinate who the plaintiff had been dating at the time), which stated:
Yes, on all counts, this place never ceases to amaze.
I still don’t understand why she is in the position she is. Lets take it a step further and ask ourselves why the HR manager thinks its ok to post notes in the ladies regarding where to do your business, or knowing what a companies responsibilities are to an employee who asks for something as simple as a wrist rest…
As dumb as Shareen is, BHB is twice as stupid. I have never heard of anyone who does accounting that has such a difficult time with simple addition and understanding credit and debit.
The Court noted that BHB was an insulting and highly derogatory reference to the defendant’s local human resources manager. Shareen was one of the plaintiff’s subordinates.
1) Did the plaintiff resign?
2) If the plaintiff did not resign, was there just cause for his dismissal?
The Court quickly disposed of the defendant’s argument that the plaintiff had resigned. Although the plaintiff stated that he quit, this was part of an emotional outburst and was quickly clarified when he returned to work the following morning. Rather, the plaintiff was dismissed when he was told to leave work.
2) Just cause
The Court concluded that the defendant had cause to dismiss the plaintiff on the basis of the plaintiff’s August 30, 2017 email that was discovered post-termination. In reaching this conclusion, the Court found the following factors of importance:
- At the outset of the employment, the defendant clearly emphasized the importance of maintaining a harmonious relationship.
- The August 30, 2017 email was well beyond the scope of the plaintiff’s duties and could only harm the defendant.
- Whereas a manager serves to represent an organization’s values and principles, the plaintiff’s email was “antithetical” to his role as manager.
Finding that the plaintiff’s August 30, 2017 email went to the core of the relationship and was not reconcilable with the plaintiff’s continued employment, the Court concluded:
Having regard to the August 30, 2017 email, if the plaintiff’s employment was not terminated, a subordinate employee’s sense of vulnerability would be heightened. The requisite respect for senior management and officers would be diminished. The general well-being of the defendant’s subordinated employees would be affected adversely. The defendant’s reputation as an employer would be harmed and would make it more difficult for the defendant to attract and retain good employees.
Even though the August 30, 2017 email came after the plaintiff had previously been formally warned about his behaviour, the previous warning does not appear to have factored into the finding of just cause. Rather, the Court stated that the August 30, 2017 email, by itself, justified the dismissal:
Standing alone, the after-discovered August 30, 2017 email justifies the defendant’s termination of the plaintiff’s employment.
The Court’s decision in Nagy v William L. Rutherford (B.C.) Limited provides several lessons for both employees and employers:
- For employers, this decision reaffirms the importance of clearly defining the types of behaviour that will be tolerated in the workplace. In reaching its decision, the Court emphasized the importance of harmonious relationships to the employer.
- For employers, this decision is another reminder to be wary of relying on a resignation that is offered in the heat of the moment. If not for the August 30, 2017 email (which was only discovered after the termination), the employer might have been liable for a wrongful dismissal.
- For employees and employers, be reminded that managers may be held to a higher standard than other employees. Had the plaintiff not been a manager, but a lower level employee criticizing his peers, we may have seen a different outcome.
- For employees, do not dismiss or overlook the risk that may be posed by after-acquired cause.