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Rizzo & Rizzo Shoes Ltd. (Re), [1998] 1 S.C.R. 27

 

Philippe Adrien, Emilia Berardi, Paul Creador,

Lorenzo Abel Vasquez and Lindy Wagner

on their own behalf and on behalf of the other

former employees of Rizzo & Rizzo Shoes Limited                         Appellants

 

v.

 

Zittrer, Siblin & Associates, Inc., Trustees in Bankruptcy

of the Estate of Rizzo & Rizzo Shoes Limited                                  Respondent

 

and

 

The Ministry of Labour for the Province of Ontario,

Employment Standards Branch                                                         Party

 

Indexed as:  Rizzo & Rizzo Shoes Ltd. (Re)

 

File No.:  24711.

 

1997:  October 16; 1998:  January 22.

 

Present:  Gonthier, Cory, McLachlin, Iacobucci and Major JJ.

 

on appeal from the court of appeal for ontario

 


Employment law ‑‑ Bankruptcy ‑‑ Termination pay and severance available when employment terminated by the employer ‑‑ Whether bankruptcy can be said to be termination by the employer ‑‑ Employment Standards Act, R.S.O. 1980, c. 137, ss. 7(5), 40(1), (7), 40a ‑‑ Employment Standards Amendment Act, 1981, S.O. 1981, c. 22, s. 2(3) -- Bankruptcy Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. B‑3 , s. 121(1)  ‑‑ Interpretation Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. I.11, ss. 10, 17.

 

A bankrupt firm’s employees lost their jobs when a receiving order was made with respect to the firm’s property.  All wages, salaries, commissions and vacation pay were paid to the date of the receiving order.  The province’s Ministry of Labour audited the firm’s records to determine if any outstanding termination or severance pay was owing to former employees under the Employment Standards Act (“ESA”) and delivered a proof of claim to the Trustee.  The Trustee disallowed the claims on the ground that the bankruptcy of an employer does not constitute dismissal from employment and accordingly creates no entitlement to severance, termination or vacation pay under the ESA.  The Ministry successfully appealed to the Ontario Court (General Division) but the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned that court’s ruling and restored the Trustee’s decision.  The Ministry sought leave to appeal from the Court of Appeal judgment but discontinued its application.  Following the discontinuance of the appeal, the Trustee paid a dividend to Rizzo’s creditors, thereby leaving significantly less funds in the estate.  Subsequently, the appellants, five former employees of Rizzo, moved to set aside the discontinuance, add themselves as parties to the proceedings, and requested and were granted an order granting them leave to appeal.  At issue here is whether the termination of employment caused by the bankruptcy of an employer give rise to a claim provable in bankruptcy for termination pay and severance pay in accordance with the provisions of the ESA.

 

Held:  The appeal should be allowed.

 


At the heart of this conflict is an issue of statutory interpretation.  Although the plain language of ss. 40 and 40a of the ESA suggests that termination pay and severance pay are payable only when the employer terminates the employment, statutory interpretation cannot be founded on the wording of the legislation alone.  The words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament.  Moreover, s. 10 of Ontario’s Interpretation Act provides that every Act “shall be deemed to be remedial” and directs that every Act shall “receive such fair, large and liberal construction and interpretation as will best ensure the attainment of the object of the Act according to its true intent, meaning and spirit”.

 

The objects of the ESA and of the termination and severance pay provisions themselves are broadly premised upon the need to protect employees.  Finding ss. 40 and 40a to be inapplicable in bankruptcy situations is incompatible with both the object of the ESA and the termination and severance pay provisions.  The legislature does not intend to produce absurd consequences and such a consequence would result if employees dismissed before the bankruptcy were to be entitled to these benefits while those dismissed after a bankruptcy would not be so entitled.  A distinction would be made between employees merely on the basis of the timing of their dismissal and such a result would arbitrarily deprive some of a means to cope with economic dislocation.

 


The use of legislative history as a tool for determining the intention of the legislature is an entirely appropriate exercise.  Section 2(3) of the Employment Standards Amendment Act, 1981 exempted from severance pay obligations employers who became bankrupt and lost control of their assets between the coming into force of the amendment and its receipt of royal assent.  Section 2(3) necessarily implies that the severance pay obligation does in fact extend to bankrupt employers.  If this were not the case, no readily apparent purpose would be served by this transitional provision.  Further, since the ESA is benefits-conferring legislation, it ought to be interpreted in a broad and generous manner.  Any doubt arising from difficulties of language should be resolved in favour of the claimant.

 

When the express words of ss. 40 and 40a are examined in their entire context, the words “terminated by an employer” must be interpreted to include termination resulting from the bankruptcy of the employer. The impetus behind the termination of employment has no bearing upon the ability of the dismissed employee to cope with the sudden economic dislocation caused by unemployment.  As all dismissed employees are equally in need of the protections provided by the ESA, any distinction between employees whose termination resulted from the bankruptcy of their employer and those who have been terminated for some other reason would be arbitrary and inequitable.  Such an interpretation would defeat the true meaning, intent and spirit of the ESA.  Termination as a result of an employer's bankruptcy therefore does give rise to an unsecured claim provable in bankruptcy pursuant to s. 121 of the Bankruptcy Act for termination and severance pay in accordance with ss. 40 and 40a of the ESA.  It was not necessary to address the applicability of s. 7(5) of the ESA.

 

Cases Cited

 


Distinguished:  Re Malone Lynch Securities Ltd., [1972] 3 O.R. 725; Re Kemp Products Ltd. (1978), 27 C.B.R. (N.S.) 1; Mills‑Hughes v. Raynor (1988), 63 O.R. (2d) 343; referred to:  U.F.C.W., Loc. 617P v. Royal Dressed Meats Inc. (Trustee of) (1989), 76 C.B.R. (N.S.) 86; R. v. Hydro‑Québec, [1997] 3 S.C.R. 213*; Royal Bank of Canada v. Sparrow Electric Corp., [1997] 1 S.C.R. 411; Verdun v. Toronto‑Dominion Bank, [1996] 3 S.C.R. 550; Friesen v. Canada, [1995] 3 S.C.R. 103; Machtinger v. HOJ Industries Ltd., [1992] 1 S.C.R. 986; Wallace v. United Grain Growers Ltd., [1997] 3 S.C.R. 701; R. v. TNT Canada Inc. (1996), 27 O.R. (3d) 546; Re Telegram Publishing Co. v. Zwelling (1972), 1 L.A.C. (2d) 1; R. v. Vasil, [1981] 1 S.C.R. 469; Paul v. The Queen, [1982] 1 S.C.R. 621; R. v. Morgentaler, [1993] 3 S.C.R. 463; Abrahams v. Attorney General of Canada, [1983] 1 S.C.R. 2; Hills v. Canada (Attorney General), [1988] 1 S.C.R. 513; British Columbia (Director of Employment Standards) v. Eland Distributors Ltd. (Trustee of) (1996), 40 C.B.R. (3d) 25;  R. v. Z. (D.A.), [1992] 2 S.C.R. 1025.

 

Statutes and Regulations Cited

 

Bankruptcy Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. B‑3  [now the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act ], s. 121(1) .

 

Employment Standards Act, R.S.O. 1970, c. 147, s. 13(2).

 

Employment Standards Act, R.S.O. 1980, c. 137, ss. 7(5) [rep. & sub. 1986, c. 51, s. 2], 40(1) [rep. & sub. 1987, c. 30, s. 4(1)], (7), 40a(1) [rep. & sub. ibid., s. 5(1)].

 

Employment Standards Act, 1974, S.O. 1974, c. 112, s. 40(7).

 

Employment Standards Amendment Act, 1981, S.O. 1981, c. 22, s. 2.

 

Interpretation Act, R.S.O. 1980, c. 219 [now R.S.O. 1990, c. I.11], ss. 10, 17.

 

Labour Relations and Employment Statute Law Amendment Act, 1995, S.O. 1995, c. 1, ss. 74(1), 75(1).

 

Authors Cited

 

Christie, Innis, Geoffrey England and Brent Cotter.  Employment Law in Canada, 2nd ed.  Toronto:  Butterworths, 1993.

 

Côté, Pierre‑André.  The Interpretation of Legislation in Canada, 2nd ed.  Cowansville, Que.:  Yvon Blais, 1991.

 

Driedger, Elmer A.  Construction of Statutes, 2nd ed.  Toronto:  Butterworths, 1983.

 


Ontario. Legislature of Ontario Debates, 1st sess., 32nd Parl., June 4, 1981,  pp. 1236‑37.

 

Ontario. Legislature of Ontario Debates, 1st sess., 32nd Parl., June 16, 1981,  p. 1699.

 

Sullivan, Ruth.  Driedger on the Construction of Statutes, 3rd ed.  Toronto:  Butterworths, 1994.

 

Sullivan, Ruth.  Statutory Interpretation.  Concord, Ont.:  Irwin Law, 1997.

 

APPEAL from a judgment of the Ontario Court of Appeal (1995), 22 O.R. (3d) 385, 80 O.A.C. 201, 30 C.B.R. (3d) 1, 9 C.C.E.L. (2d) 264, 95 C.L.L.C. ¶210‑020, [1995] O.J. No. 586 (QL), reversing a judgment of the Ontario Court (General Division) (1991), 6 O.R. (3d) 441, 11 C.B.R. (3d) 246, 92 C.L.L.C. ¶14,013, ruling that the Ministry of Labour could prove claims on behalf of employees of the bankrupt.  Appeal allowed.

 

Steven M. Barrett and Kathleen Martin, for the appellants.

 

Raymond M. Slattery, for the respondent.

 

David Vickers, for the Ministry of Labour for the Province of Ontario, Employment Standards Branch.

 

//Iacobucci J.//

 

The judgment of the Court was delivered by

 


1                                   Iacobucci  J. -- This is an appeal by the former employees of a now bankrupt employer from an order disallowing their claims for termination pay (including vacation pay thereon) and severance pay.  The case turns on an issue of statutory interpretation.  Specifically, the appeal decides whether, under the relevant legislation in effect at the time of the bankruptcy, employees are entitled to claim termination and severance payments where their employment has been terminated by reason of their employer's bankruptcy.

 

1. Facts

 

2                                   Prior to its bankruptcy, Rizzo & Rizzo Shoes Limited (“Rizzo”) owned and operated a chain of retail shoe stores across Canada.  Approximately 65 percent of those stores were located in Ontario.  On April 13, 1989, a petition in bankruptcy was filed against the chain.  The following day, a receiving order was made on consent in respect of Rizzo’s property.  Upon the making of that order, the employment of Rizzo’s employees came to an end.

 

3                                   Pursuant to the receiving order, the respondent, Zittrer, Siblin & Associates, Inc. (the “Trustee”) was appointed as trustee in bankruptcy of Rizzo’s estate.  The Bank of Nova Scotia privately appointed Peat Marwick Limited (“PML”) as receiver and manager.  By the end of July 1989, PML had liquidated Rizzo’s property and assets and closed the stores.  PML paid all wages, salaries, commissions and vacation pay that had been earned by Rizzo’s employees up to the date on which the receiving order was made.

 


4                                   In November 1989, the Ministry of Labour for the Province of Ontario, Employment Standards Branch (the “Ministry”) audited Rizzo’s records to determine if there was any outstanding termination or severance pay owing to former employees under the Employment Standards Act, R.S.O. 1980, c. 137, as amended (the “ESA”).  On August 23, 1990, the Ministry delivered a proof of claim to the respondent Trustee on behalf of the former employees of Rizzo for termination pay and vacation pay thereon in the amount of approximately $2.6 million and for severance pay totalling $14,215.  The Trustee disallowed the claims, issuing a Notice of Disallowance on January 28, 1991.  For the purposes of this appeal, the relevant ground for disallowing the claim was the Trustee’s opinion that the bankruptcy of an employer does not constitute a dismissal from employment and thus, no entitlement to severance, termination or vacation pay is created under the ESA.

 

5                                   The Ministry appealed the Trustee’s decision to the Ontario Court (General Division) which reversed the Trustee’s disallowance and allowed the claims as unsecured claims provable in bankruptcy.  On appeal, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the trial court’s ruling and restored the decision of the Trustee.  The Ministry sought leave to appeal from the Court of Appeal judgment, but discontinued its application on August 30, 1993.  Following the discontinuance of the appeal, the Trustee paid a dividend to Rizzo’s creditors, thereby leaving significantly less funds in the estate.  Subsequently, the appellants, five former employees of Rizzo, moved to set aside the discontinuance, add themselves as parties to the proceedings, and requested an order granting them leave to appeal.  This Court’s order granting those applications was issued on December 5, 1996.

 

2. Relevant Statutory Provisions

 

6                                   The relevant versions of the Bankruptcy Act (now the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act ) and the Employment Standards Act for the purposes of this appeal are R.S.C., 1985, c. B-3  (the “BA ”), and R.S.O. 1980, c. 137, as amended to April 14, 1989 (the “ESA”) respectively.

 


Employment Standards Act, R.S.O. 1980, c. 137, as amended:

 

7. --

 

(5) Every contract of employment shall be deemed to include the following provision:

 

All severance pay and termination pay become payable and shall be paid by the employer to the employee in two weekly instalments beginning with the first full week following termination of employment and shall be allocated to such weeks accordingly.  This provision does not apply to severance pay if the employee has elected to maintain a right of recall as provided in subsection 40a (7) of the Employment Standards Act.

 

40. -- (1) No employer shall terminate the employment of an employee who has been employed for three months or more unless the employee gives,

 

(a)       one weeks notice in writing to the employee if his or her period of employment is less than one year;

 

(b)       two weeks notice in writing to the employee if his or her period of employment is one year or more but less than three years;

 

(c)       three weeks notice in writing to the employee if his or her period of employment is three years or more but less than four years;

 

(d)       four weeks notice in writing to the employee if his or her period of employment is four years or more but less than five years;

 

(e)       five weeks notice in writing to the employee if his or her period of employment is five years or more but less than six years;

 

(f) six weeks notice in writing to the employee if his or her period of employment is six years or more but less than seven years;

 

(g)       seven weeks notice in writing to the employee if his or her period of employment is seven years or more but less than eight years;

 

(h)       eight weeks notice in writing to the employee if his or her period of employment is eight years or more,

 

and such notice has expired.

 

                                                                   . . .

 

(7) Where the employment of an employee is terminated contrary to this section,

 


(a)       the employer shall pay termination pay in an amount equal to the wages that the employee would have been entitled to receive at his regular rate for a regular non-overtime work week for the period of notice prescribed by subsection (1) or (2), and any wages to which he is entitled;

 

. . .

 

40a . . .

 

(1a) Where,

 

(a)       fifty or more employees have their employment terminated by an employer in a period of six months or less and the terminations are caused by the permanent discontinuance of all or part of the business of the employer at an establishment; or

 

(b)       one or more employees have their employment terminated by an employer with a payroll of $2.5 million or more,

 

the employer shall pay severance pay to each employee whose employment has been terminated and who has been employed by the employer for five or more years.

 

Employment Standards Amendment Act, 1981, S.O. 1981, c. 22

 

2.--(1) Part XII of the said Act is amended by adding thereto the following section:

 

. . .

 

(3)       Section 40a of the said Act does not apply to an employer who became a bankrupt or an insolvent person within the meaning of the Bankruptcy Act (Canada) and whose assets have been distributed among his creditors or to an employer whose proposal within the meaning of the Bankruptcy Act (Canada) has been accepted by his creditors in the period from and including the 1st day of January, 1981, to and including the day immediately before the day this Act receives Royal Assent.

 

Bankruptcy Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. B-3 

 


121. (1) All debts and liabilities, present or future, to which the bankrupt is subject at the date of the bankruptcy or to which he may become subject before his discharge by reason of any obligation incurred before the date of the bankruptcy shall be deemed to be claims provable in proceedings under this Act.

 

Interpretation Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. I.11

 

10. Every Act shall be deemed to be remedial, whether its immediate purport is to direct the doing of anything that the Legislature deems to be for the public good or to prevent or punish the doing of any thing that it deems to be contrary to the public good, and shall accordingly receive such fair, large and liberal construction and interpretation as will best ensure the attainment of the object of the Act according to its true intent, meaning and spirit.

 

                                                                   . . .

 

17. The repeal or amendment of an Act shall be deemed not to be or to involve any declaration as to the previous state of the law.

 

3. Judicial History

 

A. Ontario Court (General Division) (1991), 6 O.R. (3d) 441

 

7                                   Having disposed of several issues which do not arise on this appeal, Farley J. turned to the question of whether termination pay and severance pay are provable claims under the BA Relying on U.F.C.W., Loc. 617P v. Royal Dressed Meats Inc. (Trustee of) (1989), 76 C.B.R. (N.S.) 86 (Ont. S.C. in Bankruptcy), he found that it is clear that claims for termination and severance pay are provable in bankruptcy where the statutory obligation to provide such payments arose prior to the bankruptcy.  Accordingly, he reasoned that the essential matter to be resolved in the case at bar was whether bankruptcy acted as a termination of employment thereby triggering the termination and severance pay provisions of the ESA such that liability for such payments would arise on bankruptcy as well.

 


8                                   In addressing this question, Farley J. began by noting that the object and intent of the ESA is to provide minimum employment standards and to benefit and protect the interests of employees.  Thus, he concluded that the ESA is remedial legislation and as such it should be interpreted in a fair, large and liberal manner to ensure that its object is attained according to its true meaning, spirit and intent.

 

9                                   Farley J. then held that denying employees in this case the right to claim termination and severance pay would lead to the arbitrary and unfair result that an employee whose employment is terminated just prior to a bankruptcy would be entitled to termination and severance pay, whereas one whose employment is terminated by the bankruptcy itself would not have that right.  This result, he stated, would defeat the intended working of the ESA.

 

10                               Farley J. saw no reason why the claims of the employees in the present case would not generally be contemplated as wages or other claims under the BA .  He emphasized that the former employees in the case at bar had not alleged that termination pay and severance pay should receive a priority in the distribution of the estate, but merely that they are provable (unsecured and unpreferred) claims in a bankruptcy.  For this reason, he found it inappropriate to make reference to authorities whose focus was the interpretation of priority provisions in the BA .

 


11                               Even if bankruptcy does not terminate the employment relationship  so as to trigger the ESA termination and severance pay provisions, Farley J. was of the view that the employees in the instant case would nevertheless be entitled to such payments as these were liabilities incurred prior to the date of the bankruptcy by virtue of s. 7(5) of the ESA.  He found that s. 7(5) deems every employment contract to include a provision to provide termination and severance pay following the termination of employment and concluded that a contingent obligation is thereby created for a bankrupt employer to make such payments from the outset of the relationship, long before the bankruptcy.

 

12                               Farley J. also considered s. 2(3) of the Employment Standards Amendment Act, 1981, S.O. 1981, c. 22 (the “ESAA”), which is a transitional provision that exempted certain bankrupt employers from the newly introduced severance pay obligations until the amendments received royal assent.  He was of the view that this provision would not have been necessary if the obligations of employers upon termination of employment had not been intended to apply to bankrupt employers under the ESA.  Farley J. concluded that the claim by Rizzo’s former employees for termination pay and severance pay could be provided as unsecured and unpreferred debts in a bankruptcy.  Accordingly, he allowed the appeal from the decision of the Trustee.

 

B. Ontario Court of Appeal (1995), 22 O.R. (3d) 385

 

13                               Austin J.A., writing for a unanimous court, began his analysis of the principal issue in this appeal by focussing upon the language of the termination pay and severance pay provisions of the ESA.  He noted, at p. 390, that the termination pay provisions use phrases such as “[n]o employer shall terminate the employment of an employee” (s. 40(1)), “the notice required by an employer to terminate the employment” (s. 40(2)), and “[a]n employer who has terminated or who proposes to terminate the employment of employees” (s. 40(5)).  Turning to severance pay, he quoted s. 40a(1)(a) (at p. 391) which includes the phrase “employees have their employment terminated by an employer”.  Austin J.A. concluded that this language limits the obligation to provide termination and severance pay to situations in which the employer terminates the employment.  The operation of the ESA, he stated, is not triggered by the termination of employment resulting from an act of law such as bankruptcy.


 

14                               In support of his conclusion, Austin J.A. reviewed the leading cases in this area of law.  He cited Re Malone Lynch Securities Ltd., [1972] 3 O.R. 725 (S.C. in bankruptcy), wherein Houlden J. (as he then was) concluded that the ESA termination pay provisions were not designed to apply to a bankrupt employer.  He also relied upon Re Kemp Products Ltd. (1978), 27 C.B.R. (N.S.) 1 (Ont. S.C. in bankruptcy), for the proposition that the bankruptcy of a company at the instance of a creditor does not constitute dismissal.  He concluded as follows at p. 395:

 

The plain language of ss. 40 and 40a does not give rise to any liability to pay termination or severance pay except where the employment is terminated by the employer.  In our case, the employment was terminated, not by the employer, but by the making of a receiving order against Rizzo on April 14, 1989, following a petition by one of its creditors.  No entitlement to either termination or severance pay ever arose.

 

15                               Regarding s. 7(5) of the ESA, Austin J.A. rejected the trial judge’s interpretation and found that the section does not create a liability.  Rather, in his opinion, it merely states when a liability otherwise created is to be paid and therefore it was not considered relevant to the issue before the court.  Similarly, Austin J.A. did not accept the lower court’s view of s. 2(3), the transitional provision in the ESAA.  He found that that section had no effect upon the intention of the Legislature as evidenced by the terminology used in ss. 40 and 40a.

 

16                               Austin J.A. concluded that, because the employment of Rizzo’s former employees was terminated by the order of bankruptcy and not by the act of the employer, no liability arose with respect to termination, severance or vacation pay.  The order of the trial judge was set aside and the Trustee’s disallowance of the claims was restored.

 


4. Issues

 

17                               This appeal raises one issue: does the termination of employment caused by the bankruptcy of an employer give rise to a claim provable in bankruptcy for termination pay and severance pay in accordance with the provisions of the ESA?

 

5. Analysis

 

18                               The statutory obligation upon employers to provide both termination pay and severance pay is governed by ss. 40 and 40a of the ESA, respectively.  The Court of Appeal noted that the plain language of those provisions suggests that termination pay and severance pay are payable only when the employer terminates the employment.  For example, the opening words of s. 40(1) are: “No employer shall terminate the employment of an employee. . . .”  Similarly, s. 40a(1a) begins with the words, “Where . . . fifty or more employees have their employment terminated by an employer. . . .”  Therefore, the question on which this appeal turns is whether, when bankruptcy occurs, the employment can be said to be terminated “by an employer”.

 


19                               The Court of Appeal answered this question in the negative, holding that, where an employer is petitioned into bankruptcy by a creditor, the employment of its employees is not terminated “by an employer”, but rather by operation of law.  Thus, the Court of Appeal reasoned that, in the circumstances of the present case, the ESA termination pay and severance pay provisions were not applicable and no obligations arose.  In answer, the appellants submit that the phrase “terminated by an employer” is best interpreted as reflecting a distinction between involuntary and voluntary termination of employment.  It is their position that this language was intended to relieve employers of their obligation to pay termination and severance pay when employees leave their jobs voluntarily.  However, the appellants maintain that where an employee’s employment is involuntarily terminated by reason of their employer’s bankruptcy, this constitutes termination “by an employer” for the purpose of triggering entitlement to termination and severance pay under the ESA.

 

20                               At the heart of this conflict is an issue of statutory interpretation.  Consistent with the findings of the Court of Appeal, the plain meaning of the words of the provisions here in question appears to restrict the obligation to pay termination and severance pay to those employers who have actively terminated the employment of their employees.  At first blush, bankruptcy does not fit comfortably into this interpretation.  However, with respect, I believe this analysis is incomplete.

 

21                               Although much has been written about the interpretation of legislation (see, e.g., Ruth Sullivan, Statutory Interpretation (1997); Ruth Sullivan, Driedger on the Construction of Statutes (3rd ed. 1994) (hereinafter “Construction of Statutes”); Pierre-André Côté, The Interpretation of Legislation in Canada (2nd ed. 1991)), Elmer Driedger in Construction of Statutes (2nd ed. 1983) best encapsulates the approach upon which I prefer to rely.  He recognizes that statutory interpretation cannot be founded on the wording of the legislation alone.  At p. 87 he states:

 

Today there is only one principle or approach, namely, the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament.

 


Recent cases which have cited the above passage with approval include: R. v. Hydro-Québec, [1997] 3 S.C.R. 213**; Royal Bank of Canada v. Sparrow Electric Corp., [1997] 1 S.C.R. 411; Verdun v. Toronto-Dominion Bank, [1996] 3 S.C.R. 550; Friesen v. Canada, [1995] 3 S.C.R. 103.

 

22                               I also rely upon s. 10 of the Interpretation Act, R.S.O. 1980, c. 219, which provides that every Act “shall be deemed to be remedial” and directs that every Act shall “receive such fair, large and liberal construction and interpretation as will best ensure the attainment of the object of the Act according to its true intent, meaning and spirit”.

 

23                               Although the Court of Appeal looked to the plain meaning of the specific  provisions in question in the present case, with respect, I believe that the court did not pay sufficient attention to the scheme of the ESA, its object or the intention of the legislature; nor was the context of the words in issue appropriately recognized.  I now turn to a discussion of these issues.

 

24                               In Machtinger v. HOJ Industries Ltd., [1992] 1 S.C.R. 986, at p. 1002, the majority of this Court recognized the importance that our society accords to employment and the fundamental role that it has assumed in the life of the individual.  The manner in which employment can be terminated was said to be equally important (see also Wallace v. United Grain Growers Ltd., [1997] 3 S.C.R. 701).  It was in this context that the majority in Machtinger described, at p. 1003, the object of the ESA as being the  protection of “. . . the interests of employees by requiring employers to comply with certain minimum standards, including minimum periods of notice of termination”.  Accordingly, the majority concluded, at p. 1003, that, “. . . an interpretation of the Act which encourages employers to comply with the minimum requirements of the Act, and so extends its protections to as many employees as possible, is to be favoured over one that does not”.

 


25                               The objects of the termination and severance pay provisions themselves are also broadly premised upon the need to protect employees.  Section 40 of the ESA requires employers to give their employees reasonable notice of termination based upon length of service.  One of the primary purposes of this notice period is to provide employees with an opportunity to take preparatory measures and seek alternative employment.  It follows that s. 40(7)(a), which provides for termination pay in lieu of notice when an employer has failed to give the required statutory notice, is intended to “cushion” employees against the adverse effects of economic dislocation likely to follow from the absence of an opportunity to search for alternative employment. (Innis Christie, Geoffrey England and Brent Cotter, Employment Law in Canada (2nd ed. 1993), at pp. 572-81.)

 

26                               Similarly, s. 40a, which provides for severance pay, acts to compensate long-serving employees for their years of service and investment in the employer’s business and for the special losses they suffer when their employment terminates.  In R. v. TNT Canada Inc. (1996), 27 O.R. (3d) 546, Robins J.A. quoted with approval at pp. 556-57 from the words of D. D. Carter in the course of an employment standards determination in Re Telegram Publishing Co. v. Zwelling (1972), 1 L.A.C. (2d) 1 (Ont.), at p. 19, wherein he described the role of severance pay as follows:

 


Severance pay recognizes that an employee does make an investment in his employer’s business -- the extent of this investment being directly related to the length of the employee’s service.  This investment is the seniority that the employee builds up during his years of service. . . . Upon termination of the employment relationship, this investment of years of service is lost, and the employee must start to rebuild seniority at another place of work.  The severance pay, based on length of service, is some compensation for this loss of investment.

 

27                               In my opinion, the consequences or effects which result from the Court of Appeal's interpretation of ss. 40 and 40a of the ESA are incompatible with both the object of the Act and with the object of the termination and severance pay provisions themselves.  It is a well established principle of statutory interpretation that the legislature does not intend to produce absurd consequences.  According to Côté, supra, an interpretation can be considered absurd if it leads to ridiculous or frivolous consequences, if it is extremely unreasonable or inequitable, if it is illogical or incoherent, or if it is incompatible with other provisions or with the object of the legislative enactment (at pp. 378-80).  Sullivan echoes these comments noting that a label of absurdity can be attached to interpretations which defeat the purpose of a statute or render some aspect of it pointless or futile (Sullivan, Construction of Statutes, supra, at p. 88).

 

28                               The trial judge properly noted that, if the ESA termination and severance pay provisions do not apply in circumstances of bankruptcy, those employees “fortunate” enough to have been dismissed the day before a bankruptcy would be entitled to such payments, but those terminated on the day the bankruptcy becomes final would not be so entitled.  In my view, the absurdity of this consequence is particularly evident in a unionized workplace where seniority is a factor in determining the order of lay-off.  The more senior the employee, the larger the investment he or she has made in the employer and the greater the entitlement to termination and severance pay.  However, it is the more senior personnel who are likely to be employed up until the time of the bankruptcy and who would thereby lose their entitlements to these payments.

 


29                               If the Court of Appeal’s interpretation of the termination and severance pay provisions is correct, it would be acceptable to distinguish between employees merely on the basis of the timing of their dismissal.  It seems to me that such a result would arbitrarily deprive some employees of a means to cope with the economic dislocation caused by unemployment.  In this way the protections of the ESA would be limited rather than extended, thereby defeating the intended working of the legislation.  In my opinion, this is an unreasonable result.

 

30                               In addition to the termination and severance pay provisions, both the appellants and the respondent relied upon various other sections of the ESA to advance their arguments regarding the intention of the legislature.  In my view, although the majority of these sections offer little interpretive assistance, one transitional provision is particularly instructive.  In 1981, s. 2(1) of the ESAA introduced s. 40a, the severance pay provision, to the ESA.  Section 2(2) deemed that provision to come into force on January 1, 1981.  Section 2(3), the transitional provision in question provided as follows:

 

2. . . .

 

(3)       Section 40a of the said Act does not apply to an employer who became a bankrupt or an insolvent person within the meaning of the Bankruptcy Act (Canada) and whose assets have been distributed among his creditors or to an employer whose proposal within the meaning of the Bankruptcy Act (Canada) has been accepted by his creditors in the period from and including the 1st day of January, 1981, to and including the day immediately before the day this Act receives Royal Assent.

 


31                               The Court of Appeal found that it was neither necessary nor appropriate to determine the intention of the legislature in enacting this provisional subsection.  Nevertheless, the court took the position that the intention of the legislature as evidenced by the introductory words of ss. 40 and 40a was clear, namely, that termination by reason of a bankruptcy will not trigger the severance and termination pay obligations of the ESA.  The court held that this intention remained unchanged by the introduction of the transitional provision.  With respect, I do not agree with either of these findings. Firstly, in my opinion, the use of legislative history as a tool for determining the intention of the legislature is an entirely appropriate exercise and one which has often been employed by this Court (see, e.g., R. v. Vasil, [1981] 1 S.C.R. 469, at p. 487; Paul v. The Queen, [1982] 1 S.C.R. 621, at pp. 635, 653 and 660).  Secondly, I believe that the transitional provision indicates that the Legislature intended that termination and severance pay obligations should arise upon an employers’ bankruptcy.

 

32                               In my view, by extending an exemption to employers who became bankrupt and lost control of their assets between the coming into force of the amendment and its receipt of royal assent, s. 2(3) necessarily implies that the severance pay obligation does in fact extend to bankrupt employers.  It seems to me that, if this were not the case, no readily apparent purpose would be served by this transitional provision.

 

33                               I find support for my conclusion in the decision of Saunders J. in Royal Dressed Meats Inc., supra.  Having reviewed s. 2(3) of the ESAA, he commented as follows (at p. 89):

. . . any doubt about the intention of the Ontario Legislature has been put to rest, in my opinion, by the transitional provision which introduced severance payments into the E.S.A. . . . it seems to me an inescapable inference that the legislature intended liability for severance payments to arise on a bankruptcy.  That intention would, in my opinion, extend to termination payments which are similar in character.

 

34                               This interpretation is also consistent with statements made by the Minister of Labour at the time he introduced the 1981 amendments to the ESA.  With regard to the new severance pay provision he stated:


 

The circumstances surrounding a closure will govern the applicability of the severance pay legislation in some defined situations.  For example, a bankrupt or insolvent firm will still be required to pay severance pay to employees to the extent that assets are available to satisfy their claims.

 

                                                                   . . .

 

. . . the proposed severance pay measures will, as I indicated earlier, be retroactive to January 1 of this year.  That retroactive provision, however, will not apply in those cases of bankruptcy and insolvency where the assets have already been distributed or where an agreement on a proposal to creditors has already been reached. 

 

(Legislature of Ontario Debates, 1st sess., 32nd Parl., June 4, 1981, at pp. 1236-37.)

 

Moreover, in the legislative debates regarding the proposed amendments the Minister stated:

 

For purposes of retroactivity, severance pay will not apply to bankruptcies under the Bankruptcy Act where assets have been distributed.  However, once this act receives royal assent, employees in bankruptcy closures will be covered by the severance pay provisions.

 

(Legislature of Ontario Debates, 1st sess., 32nd Parl., June 16, 1981, at p. 1699.)

 

35                               Although the frailties of Hansard evidence are many, this Court has recognized that it can play a limited role in the interpretation of legislation.  Writing for the Court in R. v. Morgentaler, [1993] 3 S.C.R. 463, at p. 484, Sopinka J. stated:

 

. . . until recently the courts have balked at admitting evidence of legislative debates and speeches. . . .  The main criticism of such evidence has been that it cannot represent the “intent” of the legislature, an incorporeal body, but that is equally true of other forms of legislative history.  Provided that the court remains mindful of the limited reliability and weight of Hansard evidence, it should be admitted as relevant to both the background and the purpose of legislation.

 


36                               Finally, with regard to the scheme of the legislation, since the ESA is a mechanism for providing minimum benefits and standards to protect the interests of employees, it can be characterized as benefits-conferring legislation.  As such, according to several decisions of this Court, it ought to be interpreted in a broad and generous manner. Any doubt arising from difficulties of language should be resolved in favour of the claimant (see, e.g., Abrahams v. Attorney General of Canada, [1983] 1 S.C.R. 2, at p. 10; Hills v. Canada (Attorney General), [1988] 1 S.C.R. 513, at p. 537).  It seems to me that, by limiting its analysis to the plain meaning of ss. 40 and 40a of the ESA, the Court of Appeal adopted an overly restrictive approach that is inconsistent with the scheme of the Act.

 

37                               The Court of Appeal's reasons relied heavily upon the decision in Malone Lynch, supra.  In Malone Lynch, Houlden J. held that s. 13, the group termination provision of the former ESA, R.S.O. 1970, c. 147, and the predecessor to s. 40 at issue in the present case, was not applicable where termination resulted from the bankruptcy of the employer.  Section 13(2) of the ESA then in force provided that, if an employer wishes to terminate the employment of 50 or more employees, the employer must give notice of termination for the period prescribed in the regulations, “and until the expiry of such notice the terminations shall not take effect”.  Houlden J. reasoned that termination of employment through bankruptcy could not trigger the termination payment provision, as employees in this situation had not received the written notice required by the statute, and therefore could not be said to have been terminated in accordance with the Act.

 


38                               Two years after Malone Lynch was decided, the 1970 ESA termination pay provisions were amended by The Employment Standards Act, 1974, S.O. 1974, c. 112.  As amended, s. 40(7) of the 1974 ESA eliminated the requirement that notice be given before termination can take effect.  This provision makes it clear that termination pay is owing where an employer fails to give notice of termination and that employment terminates irrespective of whether or not proper notice has been given.  Therefore, in my opinion it is clear that the Malone Lynch decision turned on statutory provisions which are materially different from those applicable in the instant case.  It seems to me that Houlden J.’s holding goes no further than to say that the provisions of the 1970 ESA have no application to a bankrupt employer.  For this reason, I do not accept the Malone Lynch decision as persuasive authority for the Court of Appeal’s findings.  I note that the courts in Royal Dressed Meats, supra, and British Columbia (Director of Employment Standards) v. Eland Distributors Ltd. (Trustee of) (1996), 40 C.B.R. (3d) 25 (B.C.S.C.), declined to rely upon Malone Lynch based upon similar reasoning.

 

39                               The Court of Appeal also relied upon Re Kemp Products Ltd., supra, for the proposition that although the employment relationship will terminate upon an employer's bankruptcy, this does not constitute a “dismissal”.  I note that this case did not arise under the provisions of the ESA.  Rather, it turned on the interpretation of the term "dismissal" in what the complainant alleged to be an employment contract.  As such, I do not accept it as authoritative jurisprudence in the circumstances of this case.  For the reasons discussed above, I also disagree with the Court of Appeal’s reliance on Mills-Hughes v. Raynor (1988), 63 O.R. (2d) 343 (C.A.), which cited the decision in Malone Lynch, supra, with approval.

 


40                               As I see the matter, when the express words of ss. 40 and 40a of the ESA are examined in their entire context, there is ample support for the conclusion that the words “terminated by the employer” must be interpreted to include termination resulting from the bankruptcy of the employer.  Using the broad and generous approach to interpretation appropriate for benefits-conferring legislation, I believe that these words can reasonably bear that construction (see R. v. Z. (D.A.), [1992] 2 S.C.R. 1025).  I also note that the intention of the Legislature as evidenced in s. 2(3) of the ESAA, clearly favours this interpretation. Further, in my opinion, to deny employees the right to claim ESA termination and severance pay where their termination has resulted from their employer's bankruptcy, would be inconsistent with the purpose of the termination and severance pay provisions and would undermine the object of the ESA, namely, to protect the interests of as many employees as possible.

 

41                               In my view, the impetus behind the termination of employment has no bearing upon the ability of the dismissed employee to cope with the sudden economic dislocation caused by unemployment.  As all dismissed employees are equally in need of the protections provided by the ESA, any distinction between employees whose termination resulted from the bankruptcy of their employer and those who have been terminated for some other reason would be arbitrary and inequitable.  Further, I believe that such an interpretation would defeat the true meaning, intent and spirit of the ESA.  Therefore, I conclude that termination as a result of an employer's bankruptcy does give rise to an unsecured claim provable in bankruptcy pursuant to s. 121  of the BA  for termination and severance pay in accordance with ss. 40 and 40a of the ESA.  Because of this conclusion, I do not find it necessary to address the alternative finding of the trial judge as to the applicability of s. 7(5) of the ESA.

 


42                               I note that subsequent to the Rizzo bankruptcy, the termination and severance pay provisions of the ESA underwent another amendment.  Sections 74(1) and 75(1) of the Labour Relations and Employment Statute Law Amendment Act, 1995, S.O. 1995, c. 1, amend those provisions so that they now expressly provide that where employment is terminated by operation of law as a result of the bankruptcy of the employer, the employer will be deemed to have terminated the employment.  However, s. 17 of the Interpretation Act directs that, “[t]he repeal or amendment of an Act shall be deemed not to be or to involve any declaration as to the previous state of the law”.  As a result, I note that the subsequent change in the legislation has played no role in determining the present appeal.

 

6. Disposition and Costs

 

43                               I would allow the appeal and set aside paragraph 1 of the order of the Court of Appeal.  In lieu thereof, I would substitute an order declaring that Rizzo's former employees are entitled to make claims for termination pay (including vacation pay due thereon) and severance pay as unsecured creditors.  As to costs, the Ministry of Labour led no evidence regarding what effort it made in notifying or securing the consent of the Rizzo employees before it discontinued its application for leave to appeal to this Court on their behalf.  In light of these circumstances, I would order that the costs in this Court be paid to the appellant by the Ministry on a party-and-party basis.  I would not disturb the orders of the courts below with respect to costs.

 

Appeal allowed with costs.

 

Solicitors for the appellants:  Sack, Goldblatt, Mitchell, Toronto.

 

Solicitors for the respondent:  Minden, Gross, Grafstein & Greenstein, Toronto.

 

Solicitor for the Ministry of Labour for the Province of Ontario, Employment Standards Branch:  The Attorney General for Ontario, Toronto.



 

 



* See Erratum [1999] 2 S.C.R. iv

** See Erratum [1999] 2 S.C.R. iv

 

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