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Ontario appeal court discusses when a poisoned work environment can give rise to a constructive dismissal

In General Motors of Canada Limited v. Johnson, 2013 ONCA, the Ontario Court of Appeal discussed the legal test for when a poisoned work environment can give rise to a constructive dismissal. Specifically, it stated:

Workplaces become poisoned for the purpose of constructive dismissal only where serious wrongful behaviour is demonstrated.  The plaintiff bears the onus of establishing a claim of a poisoned workplace.  As the trial judge recognized, the test is an objective one.  A plaintiff's subjective feelings or even genuinely-held beliefs are insufficient to discharge this onus.  There must be evidence that, to the objective reasonable bystander, would support the conclusion that a poisoned workplace environment had been created.  See for example, Ata-Ayi v. Pepsi Bottling Group (Canada) Co. 2006 CanLII 37418 (ON SC), (2006), 54 C.C.E.L. (3d) 148 (Ont. S.C.), at paras. 23 and 40; Bobb v. Alberta (Human Rights and Citizenship Commission), 2004 ABQB 733 (CanLII), 2004 ABQB 733, 370 A.R. 389, at para. 85; Houtz v. 772910 Ontario Inc. (c.o.b. McFee's Tavern), [2002] O.J. No. 475 (S.C.), at para. 45; Canada (Canadian Human Rights Commission) v. Canada (Canadian Armed Forces) (re Franke), 1999 CanLII 18902 (FC), [1999] 3 F.C. 653 (T.D.), at paras. 43-46.

Moreover, except for particularly egregious, stand-alone incidents, a poisoned workplace is not created, as a matter of law, unless serious wrongful behaviour sufficient to create a hostile or intolerable work environment is persistent or repeated: Bobb at paras. 85-87; Canada (Canadian Armed Forces) (re Franke) at paras. 43-46.

The test for establishing constructive dismissal is no less stringent.  In Farber v. Royal Trust Co., 1997 CanLII 387 (SCC), [1997] 1 S.C.R. 846, Gonthier J. explained, at para. 26, that an objective test governs; the issue is whether "a reasonable person in the same situation as the employee would have felt that the essential terms of the employment contract were being substantially changed. Justice Gonthier elaborated, at para. 33:

In cases of constructive dismissal, the courts in the common law provinces have applied the general principle that where one party to a contract demonstrates an intention no longer to be bound by it, that party is committing a fundamental breach of the contract that results in its termination.

See also Shah v. Xerox Canada Ltd. 2000 CanLII 2317 (ON CA), (2000), 131 O.A.C. 44 (C.A.), at paras. 6 and 8 (paras. 66-68).