Special thanks to Oscar Ramirez (articling student in our Toronto office) for co-authoring this blog.
In Celestini v. Shoplogix Inc., 2023 ONCA 131, the Ontario Court of Appeal recently upheld a motion judge’s award of over $400,000 to an employee on the basis of the changed substratum doctrine.
What is the changed substratum doctrine?
The changed substratum doctrine recognizes that the employment relationship evolves over time such that sometimes it may be inappropriate to apply the provisions of an out-dated employment contract to a job that has changed significantly. The doctrine applies in situations where the employee’s duties have fundamentally expanded to a point where the underlying employment contract has substantially eroded, or it can be implied that the employment contract could not have been intended to apply to the employee’s latest role.
In 2005, Mr. Celestini became Shoplogix Inc.’s Chief Technological Officer through a finance arrangement with a venture fund. As part of the deal, he would step down as Shoplogix’s CEO and serve as its CTO under a written employment contract, which he signed in 2005. The employment contract limited Mr. Celestini’s entitlements upon termination of employment.
In 2008, Mr. Celestini and Shoplogix entered into an Incentive Compensation Agreement (“ICA“) which significantly altered Mr. Celestini’s bonus entitlements. Shoplogix did not amend the 2005 employment contract at this time.
There was an expansion of Mr. Celestini’s workload and responsibilities that coincided with the execution of the ICA and a change in leadership. His new responsibilities included: “managing important aspects of sales and marketing; directing managers and senior staff who were reassigned to report to him; travelling to pursue international sales; handling all of the company’s infrastructure responsibilities; and soliciting investment funds.”
In 2017, Shoplogix terminated Mr. Celestini without cause. Shoplogix took the position that Mr. Celestini’s rights were governed by the employment contract he signed in 2005. But Mr. Celestini argued that the termination provisions in the 2005 contract were unenforceable because of the substantial changes to his position, and he was therefore entitled to reasonable notice at common law. He claimed he was entitled to common law damages for wrongful dismissal on the basis that Shoplogix breached the implied term to provide reasonable notice of termination.Continue Reading The Changed Substratum Doctrine Strikes Again – Ontario Court of Appeal Upholds Massive Damages Award Where Employee’s Duties Significantly Expanded