Ontario: dubious equitable arguments won’t overcome the Trustee Act limitation period

The decision in Zacharias Estate v. Giannopoulos is an example of futile equitable arguments made to avoid the application of the Trustee Act limitation period.  The plaintiff estate commenced a proceeding to recover money from the defendant more than two years after the death.  The estate relied on the special circumstances doctrine; the court dismissed the argument because special circumstances applies only to the addition of a party to a proceeding:

[42]           Despina submits that the plaintiffs’ claim is barred by the limitations provision contained in s. 38 (3) of the Trustee Act, RSO 1990, c. T. 23 which states:

 “An action under this section shall not be brought after the expiration of two years from the death of the deceased.”

[43]           In other words, the limitation period begins to run at the time of that death, not from the time the estate trustee discovers the claim:  Levesque v Crampton Estate2017 ONCA 4552017 CarswellOnt 8319 at paras. 55-56Giroux Estate v Trillium Health Centre2005 CarswellOnt 241 at para. 28.

 [44]           While the rule may, at first blush, seem harsh, it was a specific policy choice.  At common law, any claim by the deceased would have been extinguished on death.  As a compromise to this draconian rule, the legislature provided a two-year limitation period which is not subject to the discoverability principle:  Giroux at para. 25.
 [45]           George died on February 19, 2015.  The claim was issued on December 29, 2017, 2 years and 10 months after George’s death.
 [46]           The Saccals admit they discovered the transfer to Despina between January and March 2016.  That left them approximately one year to commence an action within the limitation period.
 [47]           The plaintiffs resist the application of a limitation period by relying on doctrine of special circumstances.  That doctrine however, is limited to adding, after the expiry of a limitations period, a party or cause of action to a claim that was commenced within the limitations period.  The doctrine does not allow a party to commence a new proceeding after the expiry of the limitations period:  Graeme Mew, The Law of Limitations, 3d ed. (Toronto: LEXIS-NEXIS, 2016).

The estate also relied on the fraudulent concealment doctrine (because why not?).  The court set out the elements of the doctrine and found that none of them applied. There was no special relationship, there was no unconscionable conduct, and there was no concealment.  One wonders about the strategy that leads to making two limitations arguments plainly bound to fail; it will be interesting to see how the court awards costs.  These are the material fraudulent concealment arguments:

[48]           The plaintiffs also rely on the doctrine of fraudulent concealment to avoid the limitation period.  The doctrine of fraudulent concealment is an equitable principle:

“aimed at preventing a limitation period from ‘operating as an instrument of injustice.’ When applicable, it will ‘take a case out of the effect of the statute of limitation’ and suspend the running of the limitation clock until such time as the injured party can reasonably discover the cause of action”:  Giroux at para 28.

[49]           For the doctrine of fraudulent concealment to apply, the plaintiffs must establish that:

(a)               the defendants and plaintiffs had a special relationship with one another;

(b)               given the special or confidential nature of the relationship, the defendants’ conduct is unconscionable; and

(c)               the defendants concealed the plaintiffs’ right of action actively or the right of action is concealed by the manner of the defendants’ wrongdoing:  Estate of Graham v Southlake Regional Health Centre, 2019 ONSC 392, at para. 88.

[50]           As set out below, none of these elements apply.

(a)               No Special Relationship

[51]           The plaintiffs assert that Despina owes the estate $700,000 and that there is a special relationship between an estate trustee and debtor to the estate.

[52]           If the plaintiffs are correct, then a special relationship would, by definition, be created whenever estate trustees asserted that someone owed the estate money.  That would effectively put an end to the two-year limitation period in the Trustee Act.

[53]           In the alternative, the Saccals submit that Despina created a special relationship, by creating an extended parent-child relationship with them.  To support this extended parent-child relationship, the plaintiffs point to the fact that Despina arranged to let the Saccals know about their father’s condition.  In addition, the plaintiffs point to a number of other allegations to support the parent-child relationship including the following:  George told Despina that he wanted to leave money for his grandchildren.  Despina placed a note on the file at the funeral home not to permit the Saccals access.  Despina attended with the Saccals at George’s office and was present when they searched for the will.  Despina contacted an estates solicitor friend of the Deceased (James Daris) and told the Saccals that the Deceased did not have a will.

[54]           I cannot see how these additional allegations amount to creating a parent-child relationship between Despina and the Saccals.  The essence of a special relationship is one of closeness, trust or dependence.

[55]           Despina was a stranger to the Saccals.  She had never met them until they appeared at the hospital a couple of days before George died.  The plaintiffs have introduced no evidence to suggest that there was any type of relationship of particular trust or confidence between them and Despina.  If the plaintiffs are correct and they were aware that Despina had left some type of note at the funeral home to restrict the Saccals access, that would belie any type of special relationship.

[56]           Moreover, the Saccals’ own conduct belies any special relationship.  On April 28, 2015 their lawyer wrote to Despina saying:

“… You have taken upon yourself to represent to the public that you are a common-law spouse of the Deceased, our clients strongly dispute and deny that status.  You are hereby forbidden to approach any persons with which the Deceased had any business dealings or other relationships and make any further misleading or inappropriate representations or warranties to the effect that you have any relationship with the Deceased, beyond having had normal social interaction or friendship with the Deceased.  Any communication that you intend to make regarding your relationship to the Deceased or viz the Estate should be made only through this office.”

[57]           “Forbidding” Despina to have any contact with anyone who had any relationship with George and demanding that Despina make any statement about her relationship with George only through counsel to the Saccals would appear to belie any special relationship.  It is noteworthy that the letter was sent at least 8 months before the Saccals became aware of the $700,000 transfer to Despina.

(b)               Defendant’s Conduct Is Not Unconscionable

[58]           The plaintiffs have not established that Despina’s conduct was unconscionable.

[59]           In their factum, the plaintiffs make bald allegations that Despina was deceitful towards them but do not say how.

[60]           They have pointed to no instance in which they asked a question of Despina to which she gave a false or misleading answer.  Their real complaint appears to be that Despina did not volunteer that she had received a $700,000 payment from George.  I do not find Despina’s failure to volunteer that information to be unconscionable.  At the time of the interactions, Despina was clearly grief stricken.  She had no knowledge of George’s financial affairs and no knowledge of whether he had a will, what the terms of the will might be and who the executor might be.  She did not know the Saccals and knew only that George had been estranged from them for over 20 years and did not want to see them.  In those circumstances it cannot be said that the failure to volunteer, out of the blue, that George had given her $700,000 is unconscionable.

[61]           As noted earlier, the plaintiffs merely point to a series of suspicions they have.  In paragraph 26 of their factum, the plaintiffs begin seven successive sentences with the word “suspiciously” followed by a circumstance that the plaintiffs deem to be questionable.  By way of example they state:  “Suspiciously, no power of attorney or will were located.”  It is not particularly suspicious to fail to locate a will if none exists. That people die without a will is not, in itself suspicious.  It is a common occurrence.

[62]           Beginning a series of sentences with the adjective “suspiciously” does not convert mistrust on the plaintiffs’ part into unconscionable conduct on the defendant’s part.

(c)               No Fraudulent Concealment 

[63]           The third element of the doctrine of fraudulent concealment is that the defendant have concealed the plaintiffs’ right of action either actively or by the manner of the defendant’s wrongdoing:  Estate of Graham v Southlake Regional Health Centre2019 ONSC 392, at para. 88.

[64]           There was no active concealment on Despina’s part.  The plaintiffs have pointed to no conduct that made it more difficult for them to discover their alleged cause of action apart from the fact that Despina did not volunteer the receipt of a payment from George.  There was no duty on her to volunteer that information.  As noted above, her lack of disclosure was understandable and acceptable.

[65]           Despina’s uncontradicted evidence is that she had no information about George’s estate, assets, liabilities or general financial matters while alive or after his death.  In those circumstances she could not have hidden anything from the Saccals.

[66]           The plaintiffs have not brought themselves within any exception to s. 38 (3) of the Trustee Act, as a result of which the limitation period contained in s. 38 (3) of that statute applies and the action should be dismissed as statute barred.