Termination of employment; what is a dismissal?

It is surprising how many legally recognized variations on a dismissal there are in employment law; for example, constructive dismissal, heat of the moment resignations, uncommunicated resignations, threats of dismissal, recanted resignations and so forth. The following extract from a recent Fair Work Commission unfair dismissal case sets out some of the principles which apply when determining whether there has been a dismissal for the purposes of the unfair dismissal provisions of the Fair Work Act.

“What is a dismissal for present purposes?

[29] Section 386 of the FW Act provides as follows:

“386 Meaning of dismissed

(1) A person has been dismissed if:

(a) the person’s employment with his or her employer has been terminated on the employer’s initiative; or

(b) the person has resigned from his or her employment, but was forced to do so because of conduct, or a course of conduct, engaged in by his or her employer.

(2) However, a person has not been dismissed if:

(a) the person was employed under a contract of employment for a specified period of time, for a specified task, or for the duration of a specified season, and the employment has terminated at the end of the period, on completion of the task, or at the end of the season; or

(b) the person was an employee:

(i) to whom a training arrangement applied; and

(ii) whose employment was for a specified period of time or was, for any reason, limited to the duration of the training arrangement;

and the employment has terminated at the end of the training arrangement; or

(c) the person was demoted in employment but:

(i) the demotion does not involve a significant reduction in his or her remuneration or duties; and

(ii) he or she remains employed with the employer that effected the demotion.

(3) Subsection (2) does not apply to a person employed under a contract of a kind referred to in paragraph (2)(a) if a substantial purpose of the employment of the person under a contract of that kind is, or was at the time of the person’s employment, to avoid the employer’s obligations under this Part.” 3

[30] Although applied under the previous Act, 4 the following approach of the Full Bench of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in O’Meara v Stanley Works Pty Ltd5 in my view remains generally apposite to the consideration of s.386(1) of the FW Act:

“[21] In this Commission the concepts have been addressed on numerous occasions and by a number of Full Benches. In Pawel v Advanced Precast Pty Ltd (Pawel) a Full Bench said:

“[13] It is plain that the Full Court in Mohazab considered that an important feature in the question of whether termination is at the initiative of the employer is whether the act of an employer results directly or consequentially in the termination of the employment and that the employment relationship is not voluntarily left by the employee. However, it is to be noted that the Full Court described it as an important feature. It plainly cannot be the only feature. An example will serve to illustrate this point. Suppose an employee wants a pay rise and makes such a request of his or her employer. If the employer declines and the employee, feeling dissatisfied resigns, can the resignation be said to be a termination at the initiative of the employer? We do not think it can and yet it can be said that the act of the employer i.e. refusing the pay rise, has at least consequentially resulted in the termination of the employment. This situation may be contrasted with the position where an employee is told to resign or he or she will be terminated. We think that all of the circumstances and not only the act of the employer must be examined. These in our view, will include the circumstances giving rise to the termination, the seriousness of the issues involved and the respective conduct of the employer and the employee. In the instant case the uncontested factual findings are that the applicant had for almost the whole of his employment performed welding duties; that there was no objective threat to his health and safety involved in the requirement that he undertake welding duties so long as it was not on a continuous basis and that the welding he was required to do was not continuous.”

[22] In the Full Bench decision of ABB Engineering Construction Pty Ltd v Doumit (ABB Engineering) it was said:

“Often it will only be a narrow line that distinguishes conduct that leaves an employee no real choice but to resign employment, from conduct that cannot be held to cause a resultant resignation to be a termination at the initiative of the employer. But narrow though it be, it is important that that line be closely drawn and rigorously observed. Otherwise, the remedy against unfair termination of employment at the initiative of the employer may be too readily invoked in circumstances where it is the discretion of a resigning employee, rather than that of the employer, that gives rise to the termination. The remedies provided in the Act are directed to the provision of remedies against unlawful termination of employment. Where it is the immediate action of the employee that causes the employment relationship to cease, it is necessary to ensure that the employer’s conduct, said to have been the principal contributing factor in the resultant termination of employment, is weighed objectively. The employer’s conduct may be shown to be a sufficiently operative factor in the resignation for it to be tantamount to a reason for dismissal. In such circumstances, a resignation may fairly readily be conceived to be a termination at the initiative of the employer. The validity of any associated reason for the termination by resignation is tested. Where the conduct of the employer is ambiguous, and the bearing it has on the decision to resign is based largely on the perceptions and subjective response of the employee made unilaterally, considerable caution should be exercised in treating the resignation as other than voluntary.”

[23] In our view the full statement of reasons in Mohazab which we have set out together with the further explanation by Moore J in Rheinberger and the decisions of Full Benches of this Commission in Pawel and ABB Engineering require that there to be some action on the part of the employer which is either intended to bring the employment to an end or has the probable result of bringing the employment relationship to an end. It is not simply a question of whether “the act of the employer [resulted] directly or consequentially in the termination of the employment.” Decisions which adopt the shorter formulation of the reasons for decision should be treated with some caution as they may not give full weight to the decision in Mohazab. In determining whether a termination was at the initiative of the employer an objective analysis of the employer’s conduct is required to determine whether it was of such a nature that resignation was the probable result or that the appellant had no effective or real choice but to resign.” (footnotes omitted)

[31] A relatively recent Full Bench reinforced the relevance of the above approach in Bupa Aged Care Australia Pty Ltd t/a Bupa Aged Care Mosman v Tavassoli 6 in the following terms:

“[33] Notwithstanding that it was clearly established, prior to the enactment of the FW Act, that a “forced” resignation could constitute a termination of employment at the initiative of the employer, the legislature in s.386(1) chose to define dismissal in a way that retained the “termination at the initiative of the employer” formulation but separately provided for forced resignation. This was discussed in the Explanatory Memorandum for the Fair Work Bill as follows:

“1528. This clause sets out the circumstances in which a person is taken to be dismissed. A person is dismissed if the person’s employment with his or her employer was terminated on the employer’s initiative. This is intended to capture case law relating to the meaning of ‘termination at the initiative of the employer’ (see, e.g., Mohazab v Dick Smith Electronics Pty Ltd (1995) 62 IR 200).

  1. Paragraph 386(1)(b) provides that a person has been dismissed if they resigned from their employment but were forced to do so because of conduct, or a course of conduct, engaged in by their employer. Conduct includes both an act and a failure to act (see the definition in clause 12).
  2. Paragraph 386(1)(b) is intended to reflect the common law concept of constructive dismissal, and allow for a finding that an employee was dismissed in the following situations:
  • where the employee is effectively instructed to resign by the employer in the face of a threatened or impending dismissal; or
  • where the employee quits their job in response to conduct by the employer which gives them no reasonable choice but to resign.”

[34] It is apparent, as was observed in the decision of the Federal Circuit Court (Whelan J) in Wilkie v National Storage Operations Pty Ltd, that “The wording of s.386(1)(b) of the Act appears to reflect in statutory form the test developed by the Full Court of the then Industrial Relations Court of Australia in Mohazab v Dick Smith Electronics Pty Ltd (No. 1) and summarised by the Full Bench of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in O’Meara v Stanley Works Pty Ltd” (footnotes omitted). The body of pre-FW Act decisions concerning “forced” resignations, including the decisions to which we have earlier referred, has been applied to s.386(1)(b): Bruce v Fingal Glen Pty Ltd (in liq); Ryan v ISS Integrated Facility Services Pty Ltd; Parsons v Pope Nitschke Pty Ltd ATF Pope Nitschke Unit Trust.” (footnotes omitted)

[32] There is no suggestion in this matter that Ms Hoare’s resignation was given in the heat of the moment or was not expressly intended. 7 Further, the Applicant does not contend that the resignation was forced by any conduct of the Respondent.8 Rather, the Applicant contends that the resignation was given freely but refused by the employer and that the employment continued thereafter until it was brought to an end by the decision of Lowlands not to offer any further work in May/June 2020. This is disputed.

[33] The relevant legal principle is that a resignation from employment or office may be effected by the communication of proper notice. 9 The length and content of the notice may be prescribed by the contract itself, by statute or where no express provision is made, by the provision of an implied term of ‘reasonable notice’.10 Resignation is a unilateral act. It is not a legal requirement that a resignation be accepted by the other party despite this being common practice. The Court in Birrell v Australian National Airlines Commission11 explained:

“It would be harsh if arrangements so made during the running of the notice could be disrupted, and parties could be held to their contracts by unilateral withdrawal of the notice at the last minute. Such withdrawal, if possible, could lead to an employee being bound by contracts of employment to employers, or an employer being bound by contracts of employment with two employees, each being required to give notice to one or the other in order to be extricated from this position, or possibly to suffer the requirement to forfeit or pay wages for a period of time. In my view, I should lean against the adoption of any principle which could lead to such unfortunate consequences, and I should follow the authorities which tend to establish that withdrawal of a notice of termination of a contract of employment can only be effected by consent of both parties.” 12

[34] The general principle was restated by the NSW Court of Appeal in New South Wales v Paige: 13

“Subject to any contractual or statutory provision to the contrary, the act of resignation from employment, or from membership of an organisation, is a unilateral act that takes effect in accordance with its terms and does not depend upon acceptance by the person or body to whom the resignation is directed. This common law principle is a reflection of the significance the common law has always attached to personal autonomy. Where this principle applies, unilateral withdrawal of a resignation or notice of termination is not possible”. 14

[35] Accordingly, the most relevant general legal principles to be applied in this case are well settled. Stated succinctly, they include:

  • The question as to whether there was a dismissal within the meaning of the FW Act is a jurisdictional fact that must be established by the Applicant;
  • A termination at the initiative of the employer involves the conduct (or course of conduct) engaged in by the employer as the principal constituting factor leading to the termination;
  • The employer must have engaged in some conduct that intended to bring the employment relationship to an end or had that probable result;
  • Conduct includes an omission; 15
  • Considerable caution should be exercised in treating a resignation as other than voluntary where the conduct of the employer is ambiguous and it is necessary to determine whether the employer’s conduct was of such a nature that resignation was the probable result such that the employee had no effective or real choice but to resign;
  • In determining the question of whether the termination was at the initiative of the employer, an objective analysis of the employer’s conduct is required; and
  • An effective resignation once given, cannot be unilaterally withdrawn but it can be set aside or varied by agreement.”

 

Hoare v Lowlands Pastoral Company Pty Ltd T/A Midfield Meats (2020) FWC 5190 delivered 6 November 2020 per Hampton C