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Wrongful termination: What is just cause?

An employee may be left with several questions when their job is suddenly terminated. These can be related to the employer's right to terminate their employment, what the reasons for dismissal were, and whether an assertion by the employer that there was just cause for the dismissal is accurate. Ocassionally, employees may also have questions about their rights to sue for the wrongful termination of their employment.

Generally speaking, an employer must provide either notice of dismissal or payment in lieu of notice to dismiss an employee without just cause. However, if there is just cause, the employee's employment can be terminated instantly without notice or pay.

Just cause will be found in circumstances where the trust inherent in the employment relationship can no longer be said to exist, such that continued employment would be impossible. Typical examples justifying just cause include gross incompetence, serious or repeated insubordination, theft, embezzlement, or lying to the employer.

Other examples of just cause may include intentional disregard of rules or instructions, consistent refusal to follow the chain of authority, lying about skills and qualifications, or starting a competitive business while still employed. Ultimately, an analysis that considers the employees actions or omissions in context is required before determining whether summary dismissal for cause is the proportionate response.

Any British Columbia employee who questions an employer's claim that there was just cause for dismissal should seek advice. Serious reputational harm can flow from a termination for just cause, along with other issues such as the rejection of a claim for employment insurance benefits. Experienced employment counsel can advise on an employee's situation, including the wisdom of filing, or avoiding, a lawsuit in the circumtances. He or she can explain the dismissed employee's rights, provide an opinion on potential recovery, and determine the viability of a claim. If grounds for a lawsuit exist, the lawyer can advocate for the employee throughout the legal proceedings that will follow, aiming to achieve the best possible resolution.

Legal counsel are just as valuable to the employer considering the termination. Proactive legal advice can help ensure that employment is only terminated for just cause when it clearly applies, and the employer plan accordingly to avoid or mitigate risk of litigation and claims.

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