The Merits of Dunsmuir

Rightly or Wrongly Decided (Then and Today)?

The Honourable Joseph T Robertson QC, formerly of the Federal Court of Appeal and the New Brunswick Court of Appeal

This digital symposium marks the 10th Anniversary of Dunsmuir’s release. Undoubtedly, attention will focus on whether this “transformative” decision has achieved its stated objective of simplifying the law of administrative deference. Regrettably, the Supreme Court’s post-Dunsmuir jurisprudence has generated allegations of doctrinal “incoherence” and “inconsistency”. It is also alleged that the deferential standard of review has had little impact on case outcomes that hinge on the interpretation of enabling legislation. Too often the Court is caught applying the correctness standard under the banner of reasonableness (“disguised correctness review”). While that contention falls within my terms of engagement, the others do not.

The title of this post is obviously disingenuous. The “rightness” or “wrongness” of any Supreme Court decision is largely a matter of personal judgment. Importantly, I fail to qualify as a disinterested observer, having authored Dunsmuir on behalf of the New Brunswick Court of Appeal. That decision was upheld in the result, but for reasons that bear little upon what was argued and decided in the lower court. In the circumstances, I hope to sustain reader interest by advancing the following thesis: there is an arguable case that Dunsmuir would be decided differently today when it comes to the underlying merits. I also address the procedural fairness issue in a way that others have not.

While Dunsmuir has generated more than its fair share of commentaries, few have looked to the underlying issues that motivated Mr. Dunsmuir to seek leave of the Supreme Court. Most have forgotten the central issue. The adjudicator was asked to decide whether non-unionized employees of the government were to be treated like unionized employees when it came to termination of employment. Mr. Dunsmuir was a non-unionized employee who had been terminated with severance in lieu of notice. The government consciously chose not to allege cause, as is its prerogative under common law principles.

I pause here to draw attention to what every employment lawyer knows. The underlying issue and fact pattern in Dunsmuir parallel those found in a relatively recent decision: Wilson v Atomic Energy Canada Inc., 2016 SCC 29 (“Wilson”). Better still, the same holds true in regard to Knight v Indian Head School Division No. 19, [1990] 1 SCR 653 (“Knight”) which was central to Dunsmuir’s analysis of whether Mr. Dunsmuir was owed a duty of procedural fairness.

After exhausting the government’s internal grievance procedure, Mr. Dunsmuir filed a third-party grievance that was heard by an adjudicator appointed by the labour board. A preliminary issued was raised with respect to whether, on a discharge with notice/severance, the adjudicator was “authorized” under the enabling legislation to look into the reasons underlying the government’s decision to terminate Mr. Dunsmuir’s employment. The government argued that, under the enabling legislation, it retained the right to terminate with proper notice/severance and, therefore, it was irrelevant whether the government had sufficient grounds for dismissal. In effect, the government argued that only employees who had been discharged for cause could invoke the third-party grievance procedure (save in regard to the amount of notice/severance). In response, Mr. Dunsmuir insisted that the same legislation authorized the adjudicator to look into the true reasons for his dismissal.

The adjudicator ruled that “[a] grieving employee is entitled to an adjudication as to whether a discharge purportedly with notice or with pay in lieu of notice was in fact for cause, either disciplinary or non-disciplinary.” Inexplicably, however, the adjudicator made no finding as to whether the underlying facts supported a dismissal for cause. He simply left us with the understanding that the decision to terminate Mr. Dunsmuir’s employment was not “disciplinary” but related to “work performance” and his “suitability for the positions”.

The adjudicator’s preliminary ruling provided the confidence necessary to pursue the procedural fairness issue. It was framed in terms of whether the duty owed to Mr. Dunsmuir, under the principle established in Knight, had been breached. This argument flowed easily from the facts. Not only was Mr. Dunsmuir a contract employee, he was also an “at-pleasure” appointee of the Lieutenant Governor in Council. As Clerk of the Court of Queen’s Bench, Mr. Dunsmuir easily qualified as a public office holder.

The adjudicator summarily accepted Mr. Dunsmuir’s argument that the government had failed to inform him of the reasons for its dissatisfaction with his work and to provide him with an opportunity to respond and, therefore, the duty had been breached. The adjudicator then declared Mr. Dunsmuir’s discharge void and ordered retroactive reinstatement. Finally, the adjudicator acknowledged the possibility of judicial review before increasing the notice period from four to eight months, but without offering a legal justification for the increase.

In the Supreme Court, the newly minted deferential standard of reasonableness was applied to the adjudicator’s interpretative ruling. Correlatively, the Court was unanimous in declaring his interpretation unreasonable: “The decision of the adjudicator treated the appellant, a non-unionized employee as a unionized employee.” But, as the Court quickly noted, the interpretative ruling was “inconsequential to the overall determination of the grievance.” The adjudicator simply failed to decide whether or not the government had cause for terminating Mr. Dunsmuir’s employment. This meant that the success of Mr. Dunsmuir’s appeal hinged on the application of the procedural fairness duty.

The Supreme Court made no mention of the proper review standard for procedural fairness issues and understandably so. The Court had decided to overturn its earlier ruling in Knight. No longer was Mr. Dunsmuir owed the administrative duty. To borrow directly from Dunsmuir: “where a public employee is employed under a contract of employment, regardless of his or her status as a public office holder, the applicable law governing dismissal is the law of contract, not general principles arising out of the public law.”

Surely no one quibbles with the proposition that Dunsmuir got it “right” on the standard of review issue. And for the record, the notion that the interpretative (preliminary) issue qualified as a “true jurisdictional question” never crossed the mind of anyone and properly so! That said, I acknowledge a movement from within the Court to adopt a single unifying standard of reasonableness for all issues: see Wilson, per Abella J. I also acknowledge a movement from outside the Court to have the deferential standard extended to procedural fairness issues. Paul Daly, C. Bredt and A. Melkov argue in favour while (Justice) John Evans argues for the status quo: with respect to the American debate, see Adrian Vermule v (Judge) Richard Posner.

In the space of five paragraphs, the majority of the Supreme Court concluded the adjudicator’s interpretation of the enabling legislation was “deeply flawed” (paras. 72-76). That opinion was shared by those who wrote concurring opinions. Dunsmuir’s analysis of the interpretative issue has attracted criticism for applying the correctness standard under the banner of reasonableness. Both Matthew Lewans and David Mullan insist that the Dunsmuir Court breached its own directives when applying the reasonableness standard to the adjudicator’s interpretative ruling. And indeed, Professor Mullan made the same observation in regard to the decision of the Court of Appeal. On reflection, he writes with a gentle pen and the criticism of both scholars has merit. However, Dunsmuir is not the only Supreme Court precedent to engage in disguised correctness review. There are close to twenty post-Dunsmuir decisions listed on my scratch pad that warrant the same indictment.

Disguised correctness review means that the reviewing court conducts a de novo analysis of the interpretative issue. Little or no meaningful reference is made to the reasoning of the administrative decision-maker; just the interpretative result. Instead, the reviewing court begins its analysis by turning to the template set out in Elmer Dreidger’s modern principle of statutory interpretation; the one the Supreme Court consistently applies. This leads to an unanswered question: Why does the Court pursue correctness review under the banner of reasonableness? While several plausible explanations are available, Paul Daly offers valuable insights (“The Signal and the Noise in Administrative Law”).

Professor Daly observes, for example, that in cases where the issue is perceived as one of public importance, or of significance to the law, the greater the temptation to seek out the correct or preferred answer. There is no precedential significance in cases that say the interpretative result falls within a range of reasonable outcomes. In theory, such cases should never make it through the Court’s screening process. But once the interpretative issue is recast as a question of whether non-unionized employees should receive the same treatment as unionized ones, what judge would not grant leave to appeal? The opportunity to look into power imbalances in the workplace is the kind of stuff that fits nicely within the job description of any court of last resort. [No one who made an appearance in Dunsmuir anticipated the Supreme Court’s move to a single deferential standard of review and with a revised framework for isolating the proper standard; nor did anyone anticipate that Knight would be targeted.]

Additionally, I maintain the Court’s affinity for disguised correctness review most often stems from the failure of administrative decision-makers to offer an interpretative analysis that comports with Dreidger’s template. One has to assume as much, as the Court’s references to the decision-maker’s reasons invariably focus on the interpretative result to the exclusion of anything that might have been penned in support of one interpretation over another. This leads to the inference that the Court is too often presented with an interpretive result but not much in terms of justification. Accordingly, the Court has no practical alternative than to engage in correctness review.

The fact of the matter is that Mr. Dunsmuir never pursued the interpretative issue in terms of whether the legislation only allowed for terminations with cause. It would be unbecoming to engage in “bootstrapping” with respect to the reasons that propelled the Supreme Court to distance itself from the adjudicator’s approach to the interpretative issue (termination for “disguised” cause). In its place, I offer a compromise of sorts. I maintain there is an arguable case that Dunsmuir would be decided differently today.

My thesis rests on one’s acceptance of the premise that the Dunsmuir legislation was ambiguous as to whether all terminations of employment within the civil service must be for cause. As Professor Willis so aptly stated so long ago: “the words are ambiguous enough to induce two people to spend good money in backing two opposing views as to their meaning.” Assuming ambiguity is present and in the absence of compelling evidence that might shine light on the ever-elusive intent of the legislature, then the task of the adjudicator is to settle on an interpretation that it believes is consistent with the legislation’s objectives: see Mclean v British Columbia (Securities Commission), 2013 SCC 67.

Admittedly, any interpretative argument would have to overcome the presumption against legislation that abrogates common law rights such as the right to dismiss with proper notice/severance. That hurdle, however, is not insurmountable. Indeed, Paul Daly argues that administrative decision-makers should not be bound by the interpretative principles that bind the courts, a proposition with which I respectfully disagree. Additionally, he argues that statutory ambiguity should not be the gateway to administrative deference. On that issue we are also in respectful disagreement. Nevertheless, the fact that my real-life hypothetical assumes ambiguity may be sufficient for purposes of deflecting immediate criticism.

In the face of an ambiguity, one would expect the adjudicator’s analysis to embrace a candid consideration of the competing policy arguments in support of competing interpretations. At this point, the adjudicator now has the opportunity to demonstrate the expertise which is otherwise presumed. Surely, it is the expert who is aware of the workplace realities that permeate public sector employment (in New Brunswick) and is able to communicate those realities when explaining why one interpretation should prevail over another. And surely, everyone is entitled to know why the distinction between unionized and non-unionized employees should be dissolved when it comes to termination of employment.

Some will query why any government would want to relinquish its common law right to dismiss with notice in the face of what every employment lawyer knows is an “elevated” threshold for establishing just cause. Arguably, governments must be as fiscally responsible as employers in the private sector. Perhaps the answer lies in the understanding that, as an employer, the Crown owes more to its employees than do private sector employers. Or perhaps it is because of documented abuses surrounding dismissals with notice in the civil service. Surely, these are the kind of questions the labour expert is expected to address (with the assistance of counsel). Unfortunately, that type of analysis is not found in the any of the decisions underlying Dunsmuir (nor for that matter in Wilson).

At this juncture, the legal realist will take over where Paul Daly left off. Cases such as Dunsmuir have nothing to do with deference. The underlying issue is whether the historical power imbalance in the employment relationship is one requiring reform. The rule of law is preserved so long as administrative reform hinges on statutory ambiguity. The non-expert fails to recognize the influence of those who regard the common law as an impediment to achieving justice in the work place and, correlatively, the non-expert fails to recognize that dismissals with notice are unjust dismissals. Of course, this line of reasoning is consistent with that expected of an employee advocate and antagonistic to the majority view expressed in Dunsmuir. Here is what the majority had to say: “In the context of this appeal, it must be emphasized that dismissal with reasonable notice is not unfair per se. An employee’s right to terminate the employment relationship with due notice is simply the counterpart to the employee’s right to quit with notice [para. 105].”

The notion that a dismissal with notice is an unjust dismissal brings into consideration the Court’s post-Dunsmuir decision mentioned earlier. As in Dunsmuir, the issue in Wilson was whether a non-unionized employee could be terminated without cause. Mr. Wilson, an employee of a federally regulated employer, subject to the Canada Labour Code, was dismissed with severance in lieu of notice. Like Mr. Dunsmuir, he sought to grieve the dismissal but his employer objected for the same reason advanced in Dunsmuir. However, the federal legislation differs in wording. Under s. 240(1) of the Code, a person may grieve if she or he believes the dismissal is “unjust”. Relying on earlier arbitral precedents, the adjudicator held that a dismissal with notice/severance is itself an unjust dismissal. A divided Court (5/4) upheld that interpretative result. In short, terminations can only be for cause under the federal legislation. Curiously, the majority opinion did not address Dunsmuir’s observations with respect to dismissals with notice or severance. The minority opinion did!

Parenthetically, the majority in Wilson is also guilty of disguised correctness review and understandably so. The adjudicator based its decision on the earlier arbitral jurisprudence that favoured Mr. Wilson’s interpretation. As a result, there were no reasons upon which to measure the interpretative result. Further, no attempt was made to look for reasons that might lie elsewhere in the arbitral jurisprudence as happened in Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) v Alberta Teachers’ Association, 2011 SCC 61.

If Dunsmuir were to be re-litigated, Wilson is the one case that might reasonably impact on the outcome. Admittedly, the statutory scheme in Wilson differs in material respects from the Dunsmuir scheme, and in particular with respect to the history of the legislation and, correlatively, the evidence of Parliamentary intent. In short, Wilson serves as both a shield and a sword. As a shield, it counters a view expressed in Dunsmuir that a dismissal with notice is not “unfair” or “unjust”. In summary, there is an arguable case that Dunsmuir would be decided differently on the interpretative issue.

I turn now to the procedural fairness issue which had been abandoned in the Court of Appeal but resurrected for the benefit of the Supreme Court. Having regard to the Court’s subsequent decision in Canada (Attorney General) v Mavi, 2011 SCC 30, it appears Dunsmuir’s ruling is still good law. Hopefully, supporters of Knight will acknowledge an arguable case with respect to the incompatibility of administrative and contract law principles, having due regard to the significance of the good faith doctrine, as discussed in Dunsmuir, and more recently in the Court’s now lead decision of Bhasin v Hrynew, 2014 SCC 71. I also assume commentators will draw a distinction between express and implied employment contracts.

Personally, I believe that Dunsmuir got it right when it came to overruling the impact of Knight on employees who are subject to a written contract and who are also public office holders. But I am also convinced that even if Knight were still good law, Mr. Dunsmuir could not have succeeded. The adjudicator applied the “wrong” standard. In Knight the Court held: “The content of the duty of fairness would be minimal where dismissal is at pleasure.” In fact, the adjudicator in Dunsmuir imposed an “elevated” duty. As will be explained, the elevated one too closely resembles the one applied at common law for determining sufficient or just cause in those instances where the employment is terminated because of a failure to meet work performance expectations (“incompetence). But first, I offer a rudimentary understanding of the law surrounding Knight.

At common law, at-pleasure appointees could be terminated without notice, without cause and without ever knowing why the employer terminated the appointment. The duty of procedural fairness was intended to ensure that the reasons for termination were communicated to the appointee and, in turn, the appointee had the opportunity to address those reasons before the termination took effect. In theory, the appointee would have a chance to address misinformation that might reasonably influence the decision to terminate. This is administrative law’s equivalent of the last chance doctrine.

In Knight, the director of education for the school board had entered into a three-year contract of employment that provided for the possibility of a renewal for an additional three years. However, the contract also provided for termination by ether party upon the giving of three months’ notice. The parties began negotiations for a renewal but the school board was only prepared to renew for a year due to employment issues that had arisen over the preceding years. With no agreement in sight, the school board decided to terminate the contract with timely notice. Mr. Knight’s first argument was that under the Education Act he could only be dismissed for cause! As that interpretative argument failed, the Court focused on whether Mr. Knight’s employment attracted a public law duty of fairness.

The majority (4/3) of the Knight Court so found, but went on to hold there had been no breach. As an at-pleasure appointee, Mr. Knight was well aware of the reasons why his contract was not renewed. Further, he was given the opportunity to speak at the board meeting where the motion to terminate the contract on notice was passed. In brief, the minimal standard had been met. I now turn to an abbreviated recitation of Dunsmuir’s facts, as told by the Supreme Court.

Mr. Dunsmuir’s employment relationship was “not perfect”. The probationary period was extended twice to the maximum of 12 months. He was reprimanded on three occasions during his two years with the government. Two of the reprimands are relevant to the procedural fairness issue. The second reprimand led to a one-day suspension and to notice of work performance issues, including complaints from unnamed staff, lawyers and members of the public. The third reprimand embraced three alleged incidents relating to his job performance and contained a warning that a failure to improve would result in further disciplinary action up to and including dismissal. This was followed by a few meetings the Regional Director to discuss court backlogs and organizational problems in response to undocumented complaints lodged by staff. A further meeting was scheduled to deal with work-related issues but cancelled because of the decision to terminate Mr. Dunsmuir’s tenure with the government.

Now recall that Mr. Dunsmuir had argued that the government had breached its duty of procedural fairness by failing to inform him of the reasons for its dissatisfaction with his work and to provide him with an opportunity to respond. Recall also that the adjudicator summarily accepted that submission. With great respect, that is not a “minimal” threshold or standard. In fact, it is too closely aligned to the common law standard applied in cases where the termination of employment is for cause based on the employee’s inability to perform (“incompetence”). In such cases the employer must establish progressive discipline: sufficient calls for improvement and a warning that failure may result in dismissal.

Succinctly stated, the adjudicator in Dunsmuir effectively adopted the common law standard for establishing just cause as the administrative standard for establishing a breach of the procedural fairness duty. Importantly, the common law standard is incompatible with the minimal standard adopted in Knight! Finally, even if one were to apply the Knight standard, can one reasonably conclude that Mr. Dunsmuir had no knowledge of his employer’s concerns over his performance and no notice of possible termination of employment? Personally, I think Binnie J’s concurring reasons in Dunsmuir capture the essence of the case. The adjudicator had “stretched the law too far in coming to [Mr. Dunsmuir’s] rescue.” But of course I am not a disinterested observer!

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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