On July 11, 2013, Carla Cheney, a Wal-Mart employee in Kemptville, Ontario, was fired from her job after she confronted a customer who had left a dog in his truck before she commenced her shift. Later that day, she was fired. Wal-Mart stated that the “associate was absolutely not let go for trying to help a dog in a locked car.” Wal-Mart also stated that the decision to terminate her employment was taken very seriously. The law requires an employer to engage in a comprehensive process. In fact, before firing an employee for just cause, an employer must engage in a careful assessment of employee misconduct to carefully determine whether the conduct is incompatible with the continuing employment relationship.
Under the Ontario Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals, criminal charges may be made against individuals that cause animals distress, which is defined as “being in need of proper care, water, food or shelter; or being injured, sick or in pain, or suffering; or being abused or subject to undue or unnecessary hardship, privation or neglect.”
I have a four year old yellow lab named Hank, so I am biased. I think Ms. Cheney acted appropriately, raised concerns about illegal conduct, and should not have been fired as a result of her good intentions to protect an animal in distress. For more information on animal protection, click here.
Wal-Mart should have responded differently. An employer does have the legal right to determine how its business will be conducted, and I respect that Wal-Mart employees should be required to follow certain policies or rules when confronted with similar situations such as this. From a safety perspective, it is probably not wise for employees to engage customers directly in these sorts of cases, and it should probably be left to the police, but to fire Ms. Cheney in these circumstances appears to be a very disproportionate response by management.
Employers will often rely on a breach of a policies and procedures in support of decision to terminate employees. However, before an employer can do so, courts have said that the employer must ensure that:
- The policy has been communicated to employees;
- The employee impacted by the decision was aware of the policy;
- The policy is clear;
- The policy is consistently enforced by the company;
- The employee has been specifically warned that they will be dismissed if they breach the policy;
- The policy must be reasonable; and
- The breach of the policy must be sufficiently serious to warrant the termination of employment.
Even if Wal-Mart had a policy or rule in place, I question whether any policy or rule which discourages employees from raising legitimate concerns about illegal conduct is reasonable or justifiable in any case. Wal-Mart did not have to fire Ms. Cheney and, from my perspective, ought to have responded very differently to an employee who was simply concerned about the safety of an animal left in a hot car.
You can read the full CBC Ottawa report here.
* Please note * if you see a pet in a hot car, the Ontario SPCA advises us to immediately call your local Humane Society (Ottawa: 613-725-3166), or call police services. Invite your friends and family to pledge and join the Twitter campaign by using the hashtag #NoHotPets to help spread the important message of not leaving pets in hot vehicles all summer long! Visit nohotpets.com for more information.
Colleen Hoey is an Ottawa-based lawyers practicing in the areas of Employment Law, Human Rights Law, and Civil Litigation at Mann & Partners, LLP. The articles on this blog are not intended to provide legal advice. Should you require legal advice, please contact Mann & Partners, LLP at 613-722-1500 or fill out our form to be contacted within 24 hours.