What Constitutes a Sufficient Breach of Trust to Justify Dismissal?
Cause for dismissal may be found where an employee’s conduct constitutes a serious breach of the relationship of trust that exists between an employer and employee.
In Patanguli v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2015 FCA 291, the Federal Court of Appeal upheld a decision of the Public Service Labour Relations Board which found that an employee’s conduct breached the trust of his employer and thus irretrievably damaged the employment relationship.
The employee, Mr. Patanguli (“Patanguli”), was a pre-removal risk assessment officer in the Department of Citizenship and Immigration (the “Employer”). This position involved reviewing and analyzing submissions from applicants who claimed that removal to their countries of origin would present serious safety risks. Patanguli maintained good relationships with his co-workers and consistently received positive performance evaluations.
Patanguli planned to participate in a selection process for a position in the Employer’s Ottawa office. As part of the process, participants were required to take a written exam, the questions of which were to remain confidential. Two of Patanguli’s co-workers, Ms. Lewis (“Lewis”) and Ms. Lasonde (“Lasonde”) took the exam approximately one month before Patanguli and were explicitly instructed not to share the exam questions. Prior to taking the exam, Patanguli tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain the exam questions from Lewis and subsequently received an email from Lasonde’s office account while she was on her lunch break with her questions and answers attached. Patanguli later forwarded the information he had received to his personal email address, prepared his exam answers, and sent them back to his office account.
When confronted by his Employer, Patanguli denied sending himself an email from Lasonde’s computer and implied that the email had instead been sent by Lasonde. While Patanguli conceded that he had prepared his answers using Lasonde’s materials, he maintained that he had done nothing wrong because the exam was open book.
Patanguli was dismissed by the Employer following an internal investigation which concluded he had improperly obtained the questions and answers in order to achieve a promotion. In his termination letter, the Employer indicated that Patanguli’s conduct caused irreparable harm to the relationship of mutual trust that must be maintained between an employer and employee. Patanguli grieved his dismissal, alleging that it constituted a severe disciplinary measure, and the grievance was referred to adjudication pursuant to the Public Service Labour Relations Act.
Adjudicator Gobeil found that Patanguli had taken advantage of Lasonde’s anticipated absence, entered Lasonde’s office while she was on her lunch break, and sent her questions and answers to his work email address. This, in addition to the fact he had prepared his answers in advance and used them to write the exam, was found by Adjudicator Gobeil to comprise a very grave and serious transgression. Adjudicator Gobeil also questioned the sincerity of Patanguli’s remorse, noting that he minimized the significance of obtaining the questions and answers in advance and admitted his wrongdoing only after being confronted by the Employer. Adjudicator Gobeil further found that it was vital for the Employer to be able to trust individuals in Patanguli’s position, given the nature of their duties and the impact of their decisions on applicants’ lives. She ultimately held that Patanguli’s conduct had irreparably violated the Employer’s trust and dismissed his grievance.
Patanguli’s application for judicial review of the decision was dismissed by the Federal Court. A majority of the Federal Court of Appeal affirmed the Federal Court’s decision and the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed Patanguli’s application for leave to appeal.
Lessons for Employers
The existence of trust is fundamental to the viability of the employment relationship. The outcome in this case demonstrates that a serious breach of trust on the part of an employee can warrant dismissal, even if the employee has not been involved in any prior transgressions. This is particularly true if the nature of an employee’s position requires a high degree of trust and where an employee’s credibility and integrity is called into question as a result of his or her conduct.
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