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Court of Appeal finds employee’s “unequivocal” resignation equivocal

resignation

In the decision of English v. Manulife Financial Corporation, the Ontario Court of Appeal has weighed in on when a change in circumstances may allow an employee to revoke a seemingly clear resignation.

For the purposes of this blog, the facts in English are fairly straight forward. Ms. English was a senior customer relationship manager with Standard Life for 9 years. Standard Life was acquired by Manulife Financial Corporation. As part of the acquisition, Manulife planned to implement a new computer system. Ms. English, being in her 60s decided to retire early as she did not want to re-train on the new system. She provided a letter to her supervisor to that effect on September 22, 2016. Her last day of work was to be December 31, 2016. There was some discussion with her supervisor about Ms. English being able to change her mind.

Several weeks later, and while Ms. English was still working, Manulife announced they would not be implementing the new system. Ms. English attempted to take back her resignation. Her immediate supervisor did not immediately raise this as an issue, but approximately one month later Manulife advised Ms. English that they would not recognize the rescission of her resignation.

On a motion for summary judgment, the motion judge found that the resignation was clear and unequivocal, and once accepted by the employer, she could not take it back. In the event he was wrong, the judge found that 12 months would be an appropriate notice period taking into account the usual factors.

The Court of Appeal disagreed. The general rule in employment law is that an employee’s resignation must be clear and unequivocal. The Court found that Ms. English’s resignation was not equivocal given the circumstances in which she presented it to Manulife. The evidence supported that Ms. English was not entirely ready to retire and the impetus was the computer conversion. She was also told she could change her mind. Importantly, when the conversion was cancelled, she immediately spoke to her supervisor who did not indicate this would be a problem.

The Court found that the resignation was equivocal and condoned by Manulife through the actions of her supervisor. Ultimately, the Court agreed with the determination of 12 months.

The takeaway

The facts matter, folks. Proving a clear and unequivocal resignation is always a difficult hurdle for employers. In this case, there were several facts that pointed towards a sympathetic employee who likely felt forced out of her job early by advancing technology. Not least of which was the employer’s representations that she could “take it back” and its failure to raise her revocation as an issue immediately.

Employers who have accepted an employees resignation need to stick to their principles if they want to rely on that resignation. In the present case, the failure of the employee’s supervisor to immediately raise a concern was found to condone the rescinding of the resignation. This case is a good reminder that instructions and position need to be communicated both up and down the chain of command in a consistently applied fashion.

See: English v. Manulife Financial Corporation, 2019 ONCA 612 http://www.ontariocourts.ca/decisions/2019/2019ONCA0612.pdf

This blog originally appeared on the Strigberger Brown Armstrong LLP blog on July 19, 2019.

Devan Marr

Devan Marr is a lawyer at Strigberger Brown Armstrong LLP. With two offices located in Toronto and Kitchener/Waterloo, the firm offers a full range of legal services to our industry partners in insurance and risk management. The firm aims to provide its clients with focused, practical, and cost efficient legal advice. Devan primarily defends insurance claims with a particular interest in the intersection of the contractual, statutory and common law obligations of parties in long-term disability and employment practice liability claims. His practice also includes providing employment related legal advice to both employers and employees in the context of contract negotiations, evaluation of termination clauses, workplace investigations, and assessment of exposure to wrongful dismissal claims.
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