In an encouraging decision for employers, the Ontario Court of Appeal clarified that a corporation is not a common employer just because it “owned, controlled or was affiliated with another corporation that had a direct employment relationship with the employee”. In O’Reilly v. ClearMRI Solutions Ltd., 2021 ONCA 385, the Court affirmed that the doctrine of common employer cannot be applied if there is no intention to create an employer/employee relationship between the individual and the related corporation.

Key Takeaways for Employers

Corporate entities often structure their businesses through multiple corporations for tax, liability or other strategic reasons. It’s essential employers consider common employer issues when designing a corporate structure. Further, employers must review these structures periodically as the structure changes or as employees, or the work they perform, are transferred between related corporate entities.

To limit the risk of a common employer finding, employers should bear the following in mind:

  • Employment contracts for non-unionized employees should set out the identity of the intended employer.
  • Administration of the employment relationship (i.e., payroll, tax remittances etc.) should be limited to the intended employer.
  • Control of an employee’s work, including hiring, training, supervision, discipline and termination, should be limited to the intended employer.
  • Employers should not rely on employee work to support the functions of multiple business entities, unless employers intend those entities to be a common employer.

Case Background

In ClearMRI, the appellant, Tornado Medical Systems, Inc., was a majority shareholder of ClearMRI Solutions Ltd. (”ClearMRI Canada”), which itself had a wholly owned subsidiary, ClearMRI Solutions, Inc. (”ClearMRI US”). The respondent, William O’Reilly, was the former Chief Executive Officer of ClearMRI Canada and ClearMRI US. His written employment agreement was with ClearMRI US, but he reported to, and his performance goals were set by, the board of directors of ClearMRI Canada.

Mr. O’Reilly sued Tornado, ClearMRI Canada and ClearMRI US and Dr. Jae Kim, a director for both Tornado and the ClearMRI companies, for salary and other entitlements allegedly owed when his employment ended. While Mr. O’Reilly did not have a formal position or written agreement with Tornado, he alleged that it, along with the ClearMRI companies, were his common employers. Mr. O’Reilly obtained a default judgment against the ClearMRI companies and a summary judgment against Tornado and Dr. Kim. Tornado and Dr. Kim appealed the summary judgment decision.

The Court’s Analysis

On appeal, a unanimous panel of the Court of Appeal held that the motion judge failed to apply the correct test, and accordingly overturned the lower court’s decision and found that Tornado was not liable under the common employer doctrine.

The Court of Appeal emphasized the concept of corporate separateness ¾ the principle that control by one corporation over another, on its own, does not make the controlling corporation liable for the obligations of the controlled corporation. Corporate separateness has exceptions — the court may pierce the corporate veil and hold a parent corporation liable for obligations nominally incurred by a subsidiary corporation that is a mere façade. But in such a case, a fraudulent or improper purpose must be present. The common employer doctrine does not involve piercing the corporate veil or ignoring separate legal personality of each corporation.

The Legal Test for Common Employers

A court should not hold a corporation liable under the common employer doctrine just because it owned, controlled, or was affiliated with another corporation that had a direct employment relationship with the employee. Rather, a corporation related to the nominal employer is a common employer only where the employee can prove that there was an intention to create an employer/employee relationship between the individual and the related corporation.

The key question is, did the employee and the corporation alleged to be a common employer intend to contract about employment with each other on the terms alleged? When such an intention is found to exist, no violence is done to the concept of corporate separateness because the corporation is held liable for the obligations it has undertaken.

A variety of conduct may be relevant to the question of intent; two types of conduct are important:

  1. Conduct that reveals where effective control over the employee resided, and
  2. The existence of an agreement specifying an employer other than the alleged common employer(s).

In ClearMRI, the Court concluded that Tornado had little involvement and control over Mr. O’Reilly’s employment duties. Mr. O’Reilly’s employment agreement did not list Tornado as his employer. There was no evidence supporting the notion that Tornado had intended to create an employment agreement with Mr. O’Reilly. As a result, the Court of Appeal concluded that Tornado was not a common employer of Mr. O’Reilly.

Conclusion

ClearMRI makes clear that courts will strictly construe the application of common employer liability to guard against conflating the existence of intercorporate relationships as evidence of a common employer relationship.