We have written quite a bit about wrongful dismissal cases and the damages employers can be subjected to under the common law. However, a recent case from the British Columbia Court of Appeal is interesting in that it awarded significant damages to a terminated articling student, due to the unique factors of this particular employer-employee relationship.

The Articling Student is Terminated by the Law Firm

The employee was a law graduate who had been hired by the employer law firm as an articling student. In order to be called to the bar in British Columbia, and many other Canadian jurisdictions, students are required to complete an articling assignment, similar to an apprenticeship with a practicing lawyer, law firm, or other approved principal. In British Columbia, students must article for at least nine months as part of the Law Society Admission Program requirements.

Partway through the articling period, the employer discovered a website operated by the employee which contained similar blog articles to those posted by the law firm. The employer, feeling the website put the firm’s professional and competitive position in jeopardy, terminated the student’s employment. The employer then commenced an action against her for theft, breach of contract, trespass, and wrongful use of materials. The employee, in turn, started a claim for wrongful dismissal.

The Trial Court Finds That the Employee’s Blog Did Not Infringe

The trial judge examined the website and compared the employee’s posts with those of the firm, finding that only one blog on the employee’s site was similar to the law firm’s articles. The employee’s blog had offered information to individuals who faced driving prohibitions. The law firm’s articles offered similar information. Despite this similarity, the judge found these articles were not the same. Furthermore, the trial judge found that the employee’s post did not infringe on the firm’s copyright. It did not disclose private information about the law firm. Lastly, it did not discuss confidential client information.

The trial judge made several observations pertaining to the law firm’s allegations that the employee was trying to compete with the law firm. First, the employee had yet to complete the mandatory ten-week Professional Legal Training Course (PLTC), which was another requirement to qualify for a law license. The employee had also not obtained alternate articles or worked in a law firm since her dismissal.

The trial judge rejected several of the law firm’s misconduct allegations against the employee. The judge opined that the allegations did not constitute cause for dismissal. The trial judge then concluded that the employee was wrongfully dismissed.

The trial judge considered the proposition that the employee was entitled to be put in the financial position that she would have been in had she not been dismissed. The judge then ordered the employer to pay damages of $18,934 in general damages for breach of the employment contract. The judge also awarded $50,000 in aggravated damages, finding the employer’s actions had been undertaken in bad faith.

The law firm appealed. The employee cross-appealed, seeking punitive damages and an increase in general damages due to her loss of opportunity to become a lawyer.

The Court of Appeal Not Only Upholds the Trial Judge’s Decision, but Increases the Damages

The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court judge that the employee had been wrongfully dismissed, and dismissed the appeal. However, the Court also found that there were consequences to the employee resulting from the termination and subsequent legal action against her that were unique to an articling student. The main consequence being that the employee was unemployable within the legal profession for as long as the allegations against her remained in play. As long as she was unable to complete her articles with a qualified principal, she would be unable to be licensed as a lawyer, a profession she had spent years studying for. The Court of Appeal also agreed with the trial judge that there was a power imbalance between the employee and the employer. The employee was a young woman without local contacts in the legal profession. The law firm, in contrast, possessed reputational capital and financial resources.

The Court of Appeal noted that common law employment principles can be readily applied to the employment relationship between a principal and an articled student. The relationship did not require different legal principles or a unique application of the usual common law employment principles.

The Court of Appeal then granted the employee’s cross-appeal, increasing the employee’s general damages and awarding punitive damages. The employee had established that she was entitled to an award for loss of opportunity with respect to becoming a licensed lawyer in the province. Given this unique factor, the Court increased the employee’s general damages to $100,000. Further, it awarded $25,000 in punitive damages, finding the trial judge had erred in not doing so.

In total, the student was awarded nearly $200,000 in damages, which may seem steep, given that some would equate an articling role to an intern position, however, when the completion of such a role is a prerequisite to a person’s entire career, the award is put into a broader context. Though this case is out of British Columbia, the same principles could be applied in a similar decision in Ontario.

Contact Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP in Ontario for Questions Regarding Professional Occupations

As demonstrated above, employers must be careful when making allegations against employees, or dismissing them for cause or they could face harsh financial penalties. It is prudent to consult with an employment lawyer before beginning an action against a former employee or employer.

For advice on employee rights, employer liability and other employment or labour law matters, contact the offices of Toronto employment lawyers Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP. We regularly advise workplace parties on a wide range of legal workplace issues. Contact us online or by phone at 416-364-9599 to schedule a consultation.