As an employer, you need to be careful what you say in the heat of the moment. That is the takeaway from the Ontario Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Sweeting v. Mok, 2017 ONCA 203.
In this case, there was a dispute between Ms. Sweeting and her employer, Dr. Lawrence Man-Suen Mok. After a heated conversation, Dr. Mok angrily told Ms. Sweeting to “Go! Get out! I am so sick of coming into this office every day and seeing your ugly face.”
On these words, Ms. Sweeting left the office and brought a legal action against Dr. Mok for wrongful dismissal. Based on the facts of the case, both the trial judge and the Ontario Court of Appeal found that Dr. Mok’s words were enough to terminate Ms. Sweeting’s employment.
Ms. Sweeting was a registered practical nurse who had worked in Dr. Mok’s medical office for 22 years as his practice assistant and office manager.
Dr. Mok admitted that Ms. Sweeting was indispensable to his office – she was a top notch nurse and administrator. At a certain point, however, Dr. Mok’s secretary left and Ms. Sweeting became overworked.
This led to an altercation over the implementation of a new electronic medical recording (“EMR”) system in Dr. Mok’s office. Dr. Mok asked Ms. Sweeting to look into it, but Ms. Mok felt that she was too busy.
After several discussions about the EMR, things finally came to a head in a meeting on June 20, 2012.
Although the parties had very different stories about what actually happened during this meeting, the trial judge accepted Ms. Sweeting’s version of events. She said that Dr. Mok just blew up. He yelled at her, swore and waved his arms in the air. And then he finally told her to get out.
Dr. Mok did not intend to fire Ms. Sweeting. However, the trial judge also found that he had no expectation that Ms. Sweeting would return after this incident, nor did he try to rectify any misunderstanding or contact her afterwards.
The Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the trial judge’s decision in favour of Ms. Sweeting. She was awarded 24 months’ notice of termination, equivalent to $120,000.
This case is a reminder that one unfortunate incident will sometimes be enough to irreparably destroy the employment relationship – even if that was not the employer’s intent.
Remember that where there is a dispute in the workplace, you may want to postpone any further discussion until after everyone has had a chance to calm down.
If tempers do flare despite your best efforts, consider contacting legal counsel to see if you can salvage the situation. It may not be possible in all cases, but if employers act quickly to remedy the situation they may be able to avoid legal action and an inadvertent termination of employment.
Written in collaboration with Justine Smith, articling student.