Ontario: when a tax appeal doesn’t render a claim against lawyers inappropriate

In Coveley v. Thorsteinssons LLP, the plaintiffs sued their former lawyers for negligently prosecuting tax appeals.  The defendant lawyers moved for summary judgment dismissing the claim as statute-barred. The court refused to accept the plaintiffs’ s. 5(1)(a)(iv) appropriateness argument that the defendants’ prosecution of the tax appeals operated to delay their discovery of the claim:

[45]           Thorsteinssons relies upon a decision of Mew J. in J.C. v. Farant2018 ONSC 2692 (CanLII). In Farant, Mew J. decided a motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of an action for professional negligence against lawyers who represented the plaintiff in an historical sexual abuse claim on the ground that it is statute barred. The outcome of the motion turned on s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act, 2002. Mew J. observed at para. 72 of his decision that the focus of s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Acts, 2002 is on the specific factual or statutory setting of each individual case and, as a result, appellate decisions which have considered and applied the provision are not always easy to reconcile.

[46]           In his review of the jurisprudence under s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act, 2002, Mew J. cited the decision of the Court of Appeal in Gravelle (CodePro Manufacturing) v. Denis Grigoras Law Office2018 ONCA 396 (CanLII). In Gravelle, the appellant commenced an action alleging that the respondents provided erroneous advice in respect of an agreement of purchase and sale, specifically, as to the enforceability of a binding arbitration agreement the appellant had with the purchaser under North Carolina law. The appellant gave notice of his claim but did not commence his action until over four years later. The appellant argued on appeal that it was appropriate for him to delay bringing his action until the arbitration proceedings involving the purchaser were completed, as it would have avoided unnecessary litigation if he had been successful in those proceedings. The Court of Appeal disagreed, noting that this was not a case in which the appellant was pursuing alternative means of resolving his negligence action against his former solicitors, the respondents. The Court of Appeal held that the appellant’s tactical decision to wait until the arbitration proceedings were completed before bringing his action was his to make, but this decision did not delay the commencement of the limitation period.

[47]           Mew J. cited the Gravelle decision as one that reinforces the principle that “a tactical decision to delay the commencement of proceedings will not, absent other factors – such as the pursuit of alternative means to resolve the very claim that is the subject of the action – delay the running of time”: Farantat para. 87.

[48]           The factual circumstances disclosed by the evidence on the motion before me are unlike those in Presidential in material respects. In Presidential, Pardu J.A. relied upon the fact that the appellant looked to its professional advisors to provide accounting and tax advice, and the appellant relied on the accountant’s advice to retain a tax lawyer to object to CRA’s Notices of Assessment. The accountant who had filed the tax returns late was involved in the strategy that was recommended to the appellant and that it pursued. The accountant continued to be involved in the alternative process that had been recommended by the accountant while this process was running its course.

[49]           The evidence on the motion before me is very different. Thorsteinssons informed Michael and Stella in September and October 2010, respectively, that their tax appeals were weak. Soon after this advice was given, Thorsteinssons, although initially willing to continue to represent the plaintiffs through the trial of their tax appeals (on a pro bono basis with an associate acting as trial counsel), sought and obtained an order, that was not opposed, removing the firm as counsel of record for the plaintiffs on November 12, 2010. Thorsteinssons was not thereafter involved in the litigation strategy that the plaintiffs pursued. The plaintiffs retained new counsel for their tax appeals and they were represented by new counsel through the trial of the tax appeals and an appeal of the trial decision. Thorsteinssons does not agree that incorrect advice was given and, unlike the facts in Presidential, the firm did not provide advice to the plaintiffs about what to do to solve the problem of incorrect advice having been given. The plaintiffs’ decisions to pursue the tax appeals and to wait until after the trial of the tax appeals before starting an action were made after the professional relationship between Thorsteinssons and the plaintiffs had ended, and were not recommended by Thorsteinssons. The fact that Thorsteinssons continued to represent the plaintiffs until November 12, 2010, and that before this date the firm had expressed a willingness to continue to represent the plaintiffs at the trial of their tax appeals, does not affect the plaintiffs’ knowledge by no later than October 27, 2010 that Thorsteinssons’ advice was that both appeals were weak, and that this advice conflicted fundamentally with earlier advice, upon which the plaintiffs maintain they relied, that the appeals were strong and likely to succeed.

[50]           I regard these factual circumstances to be more like those in Gravelle. In Gravelle, the appellant knew of the claim against his former solicitors for allegedly improper advice. The solicitors were not involved in the appellant’s decision to pursue arbitration against the purchaser or the appellant’s decision to wait until the conclusion of the arbitration before starting an action against the solicitors for professional negligence. As I have noted, the Court of Appeal concluded that the appellant’s decision not to bring his action until the arbitration proceedings were completed did not delay the commencement of the limitation period. The same reasoning applies to the facts on the motion before me.

[51]           In addition, I regard as significant that Stella and Michael did not state in their affidavits that they decided to delay commencing a claim against Thorsteinssons while they were pursuing the tax appeals because, if they were successful, the losses resulting from their claims against Thorsteinssons would have been substantially or entirely eliminated. If this was the reason for delaying commencement of the action, I would expect evidence of this fact to have been provided.

[52]           I also regard as significant that the plaintiffs did not wait for the trial decision in their tax appeals before commencing an action against Thorsteinssons. The trial of the tax appeals was held in October 2012 and the Tax Court of Canada released the judgment dismissing the tax appeals more than one year later, on December 20, 2013. The action against Thorsteinssons was commenced on November 2, 2012, soon after the trial of the tax appeals and before the release of the Tax Court of Canada’s decision. This evidence is inconsistent with the position advanced by the plaintiffs that a legal proceeding against Thorsteinssons was not an appropriate means to seek to remedy the loss caused by incorrect legal advice given by Thorsteinssons until the alternative process upon which the plaintiffs rely, the tax appeals, had run its course.

[53]           The pursuit of tax appeals that, according to the plaintiffs’ evidence, they regarded as weak and unlikely to succeed, does not amount to an alternative process that had the reasonable potential to resolve the dispute between the parties and eliminate the plaintiffs’ loss. The plaintiffs’ pursuit of the tax appeals does not postpone the time when they first knew or reasonably ought to have known that, having regard to the nature of the injury, loss or damage that they claim was caused by their reliance on Thorsteinssons’ advice, an action would be an appropriate means to seek to remedy their claim.

[54]           For these reasons, I conclude that by no later than October 27, 2010, the plaintiffs first knew or reasonably ought to have known that an action against Thorsteinssons would be an appropriate means to seek to remedy their claim against Thorsteinssons for giving incorrect advice about the merits of the tax appeals. The plaintiffs’ claim was discovered by no later than October 27, 2010. The action was commenced more than two years later. There is no genuine issue requiring a trial in relation to whether the action is statute barred.

Ontario: an appropriateness analysis in a professional negligence claim

 

Nelson v. Lavoie is a recent example of a s. 5(1)(a)(iv) appropriateness analysis in a claim against a financial planner.  The plaintiff alleged that the defendant planner gave negligent advice regarding an Individual Pension Plan, which the CRA found did not meet the qualifications for registration.

The defendant argued that the plaintiff discovered her claim by the time she had seriously considered suing the defendant:

[22]           On those facts, Ms. Nelson knew or ought to have known by August 2009 that she had a cause of action against the defendants. By then, she was aware that the monthly benefits were not what the defendants suggested. Further, her bookkeeper, two other accountants and one financial advisor informed her that the viability of the IPP was questionable. She had consulted with counsel. Her counsel had obtained an expert’s report that opined: “the IPP created for Ms. Nelson does not appear to meet the requirements for registration and is very likely to have its registration revoked by CRA.”

[23]           Ms. Nelson admitted during discoveries that they seriously considered a lawsuit by August 23, 2009. She stated, “I’m not sure if it was already in the work, but we knew, yeah, we were going to have to, yeah.” Yet, she waited until June 20, 2012, to institute an action claiming some $3,000,000 in damages sustained because of negligent financial advice and misrepresentation.

The plaintiff didn’t dispute these facts, but argued that a proceeding wouldn’t be an appropriate remedy until the CRA’s final determination regarding the pension plan:

[28]           Although she may have had suspicions on the validity of her IPP, she submits her claim did not materialize until the CRA deregistered her plan by notice dated September 28, 2011. Since the Statement of Claim was issued on June 20, 2012, it is well within the time prescribed by the Limitations Act, 2002. She submits it was not until that time that the essential elements of s. 5 of the Limitations Act, 2002, were met. At that point, she was aware that she would have to indemnify the CRA for back taxes, interest and any associated penalties.

After reviewing the s. 5(1)(a)(iv) jurisprudence, the court rejected the defendant’s argument:

[54]           When applying these principles to this factual situation, it is clear that Ms. Nelson had some suspicions by the August of 2009 regarding the conformity of the IPP. The advice that she received from the accountants and financial planners she consulted was concerning. The defendants submit that these facts satisfy the test at s. 5(1)(a) of the Act. However, I am unable to accept this argument because it fails to satisfy the requirement of s. 5(1)(a)(i) and s. 5(1)(a)(iv).

[55]           Firstly, the defendants’ reassurance prevented the plaintiff from discovering that loss or damage has occurred. The defendants, her financial advisors, insisted that the plan was not only acceptable to the CRA but it would be beneficial to her in the long-term. On at least two subsequent occasions, the defendants reassured her that the IPP complied with the Income Tax Act. This repeated advice casted doubts over the inadequacy of the IPP. In this light, Ms. Nelson could not conclude if damage had occurred.

[56]           Secondly, I cannot accept the defendants’ position concerning the right time for the institution of appropriate proceedings. It would not have been appropriate for Ms. Nelson to institute an action without a final determination from the CRA. Her counsel started a review process by notifying the CRA that something may be amiss. The CRA did not make a final decision until September 2011. Until then, the IPP’s compliance with the regulation remained uncertain. Ms. Nelson could not know that the advice she received from the defendants was in fact wrong. On September 28, 2011, the CRA made the decision to deregister the plan. Her suspicions and doubts about the plan crystallized with that notice. There was no doubt, at that point, that she would be responsible for tax arrears and additional penalties. It is only at that time that it was appropriate to institute an action. Had Ms. Nelson instituted an action in the fall of 2009, she would have very likely faced a summary judgment application dismissing her claim.

This seems to very good limitations analysis, and worth reviewing when considering the limitation of professional negligence claims.

Ontario: the defendant’s inability to satisfy a debt doesn’t make a proceeding inappropriate

 

Davies v. Davies Smith Developments Partnership is another decision from the Court of Appeal that delineates when a proceeding will be an appropriate remedy for a plaintiff’s loss.  The defendant’s lack of funds to satisfy its debt to the plaintiff did not prevent a claim from being an appropriate remedy for the debt.  The decision also reiterates the distinction between damage and damages:

[11]      In asserting that the limitation period had not expired, the appellant submits that: (a) the amount owing to the appellant was in dispute; (b) the profits could not be ascertained until the partnership’s projects had been completed; (c) an action was not an “appropriate” means to remedy the appellant’s loss because he knew the partnership did not have funds; and (d) there had been forbearance or novation, making it inappropriate to commence an action. The appellant submits that the claim was not discovered until 2011, when he realized that the respondent had made improper charges to his capital account.

[12]      We agree with the respondent that the first two submissions confuse “damage” with “damages”. The appellant knew by the end of June 2008 that he had suffered damage, even though the amount of his damages was a matter of dispute and had not been quantified: see Hamilton (City) v. Metcalfe & Mansfield Capital Corporation2012 ONCA 156 (CanLII)347 D.L.R. (4th) 657, at paras. 54 and 58.

[13]      The third submission that the respondent did not have the funds to pay, while perhaps explaining the appellant’s conduct, did not stop the limitation period from running. The appellant’s claim was “fully ripened” by July 2008. The word “appropriate”, as it appears in s. 5 of the Limitations Act, means “legally appropriate”. The appellant cannot rely on his own tactical reasons for delaying the commencement of legal proceedings: see Markel Insurance Company of Canada v. ING Insurance Company of Canada2012 ONCA 218 (CanLII)348 D.L.R. (4th) 744, at para. 34.

Ontario: s. 5(1)(a)(iv) and doctor-patient relationships

The decision in Kram v. Oestreicher is an example of a circumstance where a proceeding did not become an appropriate remedy while a doctor was attempting to remedy his error:

[125]      In my view, the circumstances here are analogous to those before the Court of Appeal in both Presidential MSH Corporation and Brown v. Baum. Assuming that I had concluded that Oestreicher was civilly liable for the manner in which the June 15, 2009 surgery was carried out, he was engaged in good faith efforts to remedy any damage caused for at least the next 14 months. This was reflected in the three subsequent surgeries he performed, the last of which occurred on August 17, 2010. Moreover, it is clear that Kram was relying on Oestreicher’s superior knowledge and expertise throughout this time period.

[126]      In my view, it would have been premature, and therefore inappropriate, for Kram to have commenced a legal action while Oestreicher’s good-faith efforts to remedy any negative effects from the June 15, 2009 surgery were ongoing. I conclude that the two-year limitation period in respect of her claims began to run, at the earliest, on August 17, 2010. She commenced this proceeding within two years of that date. Accordingly, Kram’s claims are not barred by the operation of the Act.

 

Ontario: Court of Appeal reminds us that arbitration doesn’t suspend the limitation period

 

In Gravelle (CodePro Manufacturing) v. Denis Grigoras Law Office, the Court of Appeal held that a party who writes a letter with the subject line “Notice of Pending Legal Malpractice Action”, and advises that “a statement of claim is currently being drafted against yourself […] such as to avoid the expiration of the applicable statute of limitation periods”, has discovered his claim.

If the party subsequently pursues arbitration in lieu of an action, that will not have the effect of suspending the commencement of the limitation period:

[6]         This is not a case in which the appellant was pursuing alternative means of resolving his negligence allegations against his former solicitors, the respondents. The appellant decided for tactical reasons not to bring his action against the respondents until the arbitration proceedings were completed. He was entitled to make this choice, but he must live with the consequences of it. The motion judge made no error in concluding that the appellant discovered his claim by November 23, 2009. The fact that a notice of possible claim has been delivered “may be considered by a court in determining when the limitation period in respect of the person’s claim began to run”: Limitations Act, 2002, s. 14(3).

This is a useful s. 5(1)(a)(iv) decision because it provides an example of the kind of tactical consideration that does not prevent a proceeding from being an appropriate remedy.

It’s also an interesting counterpoint to this decision.

Ontario: the impact of an appeal on the appropriateness of a proceeding

When the success of an appeal in a related but separate proceeding (involving the same defendants) will eliminate damage, is a proceeding to remedy that damage inappropriate until the appeal’s determination?  No, held the Court of Appeal in Tapak v. Non-Marine Underwriters, Lloyd’s of London:

[13]      The second is to submit that the appeal against the other defendants, if successful, might have eliminated their losses and thus the appellants did not know that this action was “an appropriate means” to seek to remedy its losses until the appeal was dismissed, relying on s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act, 2002 and Presidential MSH Corp. v. Marr, Foster & Co. LLP (2017), 135 O.R. (3d) 3212017 ONCA 325 (CanLII). In our view, s. 5(1)(a)(iv) is not intended to be used to parse claims as between different defendants and thus permit one defendant to be pursued before turning to another defendant. Rather, it is intended to address the situation where there may be an avenue of relief outside of a court proceeding that a party can use to remedy their “injury, loss or damage” – see, for example, 407 ETR Concession Co. v. Day2016 ONCA 709 (CanLII)133 O.R. (3d) 762.

The Court also included a reminder that seeking a declaration in addition to consequential relief will not avoid a limitations defence by engaging s. 16(1)(a) of the Limitations Act:

[14]      The third is the argument that the appellants only sought declaratory relief and therefore, under s. 16(1)(a) of the Limitations Act, 2002, the two year limitation period does not apply. That argument cannot succeed because the claim in this action was not limited to declaratory relief. The claim also sought consequential relief, namely damages, so s. 16(1)(a) does not apply.

Ontario: the CA on the impact of related criminal proceedings on the limitation of intentional torts

In Winmill v. Woodstock (Police Services Board), the Court of Appeal considered the appropriateness of a proceeding as a remedy to battery.  The decision is generally noteworthy for the quality of its s. 5(1)(a)(iv) analysis, but also of its application of s. 5 to the interaction between claims arising from intentional torts and related to criminal proceedings.  As the court’s dissent notes, the limitation of these claims is usually determined by the misapplication of common law principles, not s. 5.

The plaintiff sued the Woodstock police for negligent investigation and battery.  The police obtained summary judgment dismissing the claim arising from the battery as statute-barred, but not the claim arising from negligent investigation.  The plaintiff appealed successfully.

Justice MacPherson and Feldman undertook a refreshingly comprehensive and sound s. 5 analysis:

[18]      Turning to s. 5(1)(a) of the LA, in this case there is no issue with respect to the first three of the four factors set out in this clause. The appellant knew that he had been injured on June 1, 2014, that the injury was caused by physical blows to his body, and that at least some of the respondents administered those blows.

[19]      The crucial issue is the fourth factor: did the appellant know on June 1, 2016 that a legal proceeding would be an appropriate means to seek to remedy the injuries caused by the alleged battery committed against him?

The court summarised the principles of applicable to s. 5(1)(a)(iv) analyses:

[22]      First, the word “appropriate” means “legally appropriate”.

[…]

[23]      Second, this does not mean that determining whether a limitation period applies involves pulling two simple levers – date of injury and date of initiation of legal proceeding – and seeing whether the result is inside or outside the limitation period prescribed by the relevant statute. On the contrary, other important factors can come into play in the analysis.

[…]

[24]      Third, within the rubric of “the specific factual or statutory setting of each individual case”, s. 5(1)(b) of the LA requires that attention be paid to the abilities and circumstances of the person with the claim […]

Those principles applied to the plaintiff’s claim meant it was timely:

[25]      Against this background of general principles, I turn to the motion judge’s conclusion that the appellant’s battery claim was outside (by one day) the two year limitation period prescribed by s. 4 of the LA. With respect, I think that the motion judge erred, essentially for three reasons.

[26]      First, the appellant’s negligent investigation claim is proceeding. The parties agree that the discoverability date for this claim is February 17, 2016, the day the appellant was acquitted on the criminal charges against him. Factually, the negligent investigation claim covers almost precisely the same parties and events as the battery claim. There was virtually no investigation in this case. The police were called, they arrived and immediately entered the appellant’s home, and some kind of altercation quickly unfolded.

[27]      In my view, the appellant’s Amended Statement of Claim shows how inextricably intertwined are the two alleged torts:

14 e.  The Defendant officers were present and knew or ought to have known that the Plaintiff did not commit an assault against any police officer. There was no reasonable cause for the Defendant officers to arrest or charge the Plaintiff with assault of a police officer.

14 f.   As the Plaintiff stood motionless, he was pushed violently in the chest by the Defendant Dopf. He was then thrown to the floor. Knee strikes and punches were then delivered by both the Defendants Dopf and Campbell. He was handcuffed, removed from the house and taken to the police station.

[28]      Second, I agree with the appellant that, in the specific factual setting of this case (407 ETR), and bearing in mind the circumstances of the person with the claim (Novak), it made sense for him to postpose deciding whether to make a battery claim against the respondents until his criminal charges for assault and resisting arrest were resolved. The criminal charges of assault and resisting arrest against the appellant and his tort claim of battery against the respondents are, in reality, two sides of the same coin or mirror images of each other.

[…]

[31]      In a similar vein, it strikes me as obvious that the verdict in the appellant’s criminal trial, especially on the assault charge, would be a crucial, bordering on determinative, factor in the appellant’s calculation of whether to proceed with a civil action grounded in a battery claim against the respondents.

[32]      Third, and overlapping with the second reason, there is a case almost directly on point suggesting that the appellant was justified in waiting for the verdict in his criminal trial before commencing a civil claim against the respondents. In Chimienti v. Windsor (City)2011 ONCA 16 (CanLII), the plaintiff was charged with assault following a tavern brawl. The charge was dropped. The plaintiff commenced a civil action with claims of negligent and malicious investigation. The motion judge dismissed the action on the basis of the relevant statutory limitation period. This court, although dismissing the appeal on other grounds, disagreed with the motion judge’s analysis of the discoverability issue. In doing so, the court said, at para. 15:

[T]here is something of a logical inconsistency in asking a civil court to rule on the propriety of a criminal prosecution before the criminal court has had the opportunity to assess the merits of the underlying charge.

[33]      In my view, this passage is particularly applicable to this appeal. As I said earlier, the criminal charges of assault and resisting arrest against the appellant and his tort claim of battery against the respondents are very close to being two sides of the same coin or mirror images of each other. Accordingly, it made sense for the appellant to focus on his criminal charges and deal with those before making a final decision about a civil action against the respondents.

Justice Hourigan dissented:

[40]      In my view, the decision of this court in Markel Insurance Company of Canada v. ING Insurance Company2012 ONCA 218(CanLII)109 O.R. (3d) 652, is key to the correct outcome in this case. In that case, Sharpe J.A. explained that “appropriate” under s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Act must mean “legally appropriate”, and, at para. 34, admonished against giving the term a broad meaning:

To give “appropriate” an evaluative gloss, allowing a party to delay the commencement of proceedings for some tactical or other reason beyond two years from the date the claim is fully ripened … would, in my opinion, inject an unacceptable element of uncertainty into the law of limitation of actions.

[41]      My colleague acknowledges the authority of Markel, but in my view undermines it by emphasizing the need to attend to the factual circumstances of individual cases, drawing on this court’s subsequent decisions in 407 ETR Concession Co. v. Day2016 ONCA 709 (CanLII)133 O.R. (3d) 762, and Brown v. Baum2016 ONCA 325 (CanLII)397 D.L.R. (4th) 161. But both of these cases are clearly distinguishable. An action in 407 ETR was not “appropriate” at the time of the injury because an alternative administrative means of settling the dispute had not been completed. An action in Brown was not “appropriate” at the time of the injury because the defendant surgeon was providing further treatment in an attempt to rectify the harm he was alleged to have caused in the initial surgery.

[42]      There was no alternative means of resolving the appellant’s allegations in this case, nor were the defendants in a position to rectify the harm they were alleged to have caused. My colleague considers it obvious that the appellant should await the outcome of the criminal proceedings against him, relying on dicta from Chimienti v. Windsor (City)2011 ONCA 16 (CanLII)330 D.L.R. (4th) 148. But that case, too, is distinguishable, among other reasons because it concerned claims of negligent and malicious investigation – claims that depended on the completion of the relevant criminal proceedings on which they were based.

[…]

[44]      Nor can a claimant delay the start of a limitation period for an intentional tort in order to await the outcome of related criminal proceedings. This approach has been followed by Ontario trial courts in many cases. For example, in Brown v. Becks2017 ONSC 4218 (CanLII), the court held that a limitation period involving various claims against police including battery during an arrest ran from the date of the plaintiff’s arrest, not the date of his acquittal on criminal charges; in Boyce v. Toronto (City) Police Services Board2011 ONSC 54 (CanLII), aff’d 2012 ONCA 230 (CanLII), the limitation period in a civil action against police ran from the date of the battery rather than the officers’ conviction on assault charges. See also EBF v. HMQ in Right of Ontario, et. al2013 ONSC 2581 (CanLII), and Wong v. Toronto Police Services Board2009 CanLII 66385 (ON SC)2009 CarswellOnt 7412 (Ont. S.C.). Similarly, in Kolosov v. Lowe’s Companies Inc.2016 ONCA 973 (CanLII)34 C.C.L.T. (4th) 177, this court affirmed the trial judge’s decision that a limitation period involving intentional tortious conduct alleged to have occurred on arrest ran from the date of the arrest rather than the date of the withdrawal of the criminal charges. See also Roda v. Toronto Police Services Board2016 ONSC 743 (CanLII), aff’d 2017 ONCA 768 (CanLII). My colleague offers no reason to depart from this body of law.

I disagree with this reasoning particularly in regards of the jurisprudence holding that the limitation period commence always on a certain date, like the date of an arrest.  That jurisprudence misapplies common law principles of cause of action accrual to the Limitations Act’s discovery provisions.  As I have discussed many times [cite], it is not the case under the Limitations Act that all plaintiffs will discover a claim always on the happening of a particular event, like an arrest.

Lastly, I noted that the court cited its decision in West for the principle different limitation periods may apply to different torts:

[17]      I begin with a structural point. In a single case where a plaintiff alleges different torts, it is possible and permissible for different limitation periods to apply to the different torts: see West v. Ontario2015 ONCA 147 (CanLII), at paras. 2-3.

It’s not clear to me how there could be any uncertainty about this point.  The Limitations Act applies to “claims” pursued in court proceedings, that is, claims to remedy damage resulting from an act or omission.  There can only be one act or omission in a claim.  Discrete acts or omissions give rise to discrete claims.  A court may define an act expansively, so that, for example, one act of deceit is comprised of multiple unlawful acts, but an act could never be the actionable conduct in deceit and, say, negligent misrepresentation.  This applies equally to claims where the actionable conduct doesn’t sound in tort.

Ontario: undertaking alternative remedial processes can delay discovery

Presidential MSH Corporation v. Marr Foster & Co. LLP is another excellent decision from the Court of Appeal applying s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act.  Where the plaintiff relies on an alternative process that would substantially eliminate its loss so that court proceedings would be unnecessary to remedy it, and the date the alternative process runs its course is reasonably ascertainable, a proceeding will not be an appropriate remedy until that alternative process concludes.

While this decision doesn’t break new ground, it clarifies the impact remedial measures can have on discovery of a claim.  This is of particular consequence in professional negligence claims, which was the case in Presidential.

The respondents filed the appellant’s corporate tax returns after their due date. As a result, the CRA denied tax credits that would have been available had the returns been filed on time.

The appellant received the CRA’s Notices of Assessment disallowing each of the claimed credits on April 12, 2010. When the appellant received the notices, he immediately asked the respodnents what to do and how to fix the problem.

The motion judge inferred that the respondents advised the appellant to retain a tax lawyer to determine how to solve the tax problem but didn’t advise him to obtain legal advice about a professional negligence claim against the respondents.

The appellant did retain a tax lawyer on April 15, 2010, but there was no discussion of a possible action against the respondents. The tax lawyer filed a Notice of Objection to the CRA assessments, as well as an application for discretionary relief. The respondent helped the appellant prepare its appeals to the CRA by drafting the application for relief and helping the appellant and its lawyer with whatever else they needed, until at least November 2011.

By letter dated May 16, 2011, the CRA responded to the Notice of Objection advising that it intended to confirm the assessments. It did in fact confirm them on July 7, 2011.

The motion judge found that, as late as July 2011, there was still a reasonable chance that the application for discretionary relief would mitigate some or all of the appellant’s loss.

On August 1, 2012, the appellant issued its statement of claim against the respondents. This was more than two years after the initial denial by CRA of the credits, but within two years of CRA’s refusal to alter the assessments in response to the Notice of Objection.

The motion judge held that the appellants claim would have been appropriate while the CRA appeal was still ongoing because the appeal would not have fully eliminated the appellant’s claim against the respondents.  In particular, it would not have eliminated the appellant’s claim for the costs of retaining a tax lawyer to prosecute it.

Justice Pardu rejected this reasoning.  She summarised the applicable principles:

[20]      First, the cases suggest that a legal proceeding against an expert professional may not be appropriate if the claim arose out of the professional’s alleged wrongdoing but may be resolved by the professional himself or herself without recourse to the courts, rendering the proceeding unnecessary.

[…]

[26]      Resort to legal action may be “inappropriate” in cases where the plaintiff is relying on the superior knowledge and expertise of the defendant, which often, although not exclusively, occurs in a professional relationship. Conversely, the mere existence of such a relationship may not be enough to render legal proceedings inappropriate, particularly where the defendant, to the knowledge of the plaintiff, is not engaged in good faith efforts to right the wrong it caused. The defendant’s ameliorative efforts and the plaintiff’s reasonable reliance on such efforts to remedy its loss are what may render the proceeding premature.

[27]      Finally, I note that cases in which a defendant who is an expert professional attempts to remedy a loss that a plaintiff has discovered and alleges was caused by the defendant (engaging the potential application of s. 5(1)(a)(iv)) are distinct from  cases in which courts have held that  a client has not discovered a potential claim for solicitor’s negligence until being advised by another legal professional about the claim: see Ferrara, at para. 70; and Lauesen v. Silverman, 2016 ONCA 327 (CanLII), 130 O.R. (3d) 665, at paras. 25-31. In the latter category of cases, the issue is whether the plaintiff knew or ought reasonably to have knowninjury, loss or damage had occurred (under s. 5(1)(a)(i)) that was caused by or contributed to by an act or omission of the defendant (under ss. 5(1)(a)(ii) and (iii)). Section 5(1)(a)(iv) comes into focus where the plaintiff knew or ought reasonably to have known of his or her loss and the defendant’s causal act or omission, but the plaintiff contends the limitation period was suspended because a proceeding would be premature. Although discoverability under more than one subsection of s. 5(1)(a) may be engaged in a single case, it is important not to collapse the analysis of discoverability of loss or damage and the defendant’s negligence or other wrong with the determination whether legal action is appropriate although other proceedings to deal with the loss may be relevant to both questions.

(3)         The effect of other processes which may eliminate the loss

[28]      A second line of cases interpreting and applying s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Act involves a plaintiff’s pursuit of other processes having the potential to resolve the dispute between the parties and eliminate the plaintiff’s loss.

[29]      This approach to discoverability is consistent with  the rule in administrative law that it is premature for a party to bring a court proceeding to seek a remedy if a statutory dispute resolution process offers an adequate alternative remedy and that process has not fully run its course or been exhausted: see Volochay v. College of Massage Therapists of Ontario, 2012 ONCA 541 (CanLII), 111 O.R. (3d) 561, at paras. 61-70.

[…]

[39]      Non-administrative, alternative processes have also been seen in other cases as having the potential to resolve a dispute, thus rendering a court proceeding inappropriate or unnecessary.

[…]

[45]      Many of the cases dealing with the effect of alternative processes on the appropriateness of a court proceeding have applied the concept of a proceeding being “legally appropriate” articulated by this court in Markel. Markel involved a dispute between sophisticated insurers claiming indemnity under statutory loss transfer rules. The limitations issue that arose concerned whether a legal proceeding was “inappropriate” while settlement discussions between the parties were ongoing and thus, whether a claim was not discovered until these negotiations broke down.

[46]      Recall that, in Markel, the court held that the term “appropriate” in s. 5(1)(a)(iv) means “legally appropriate”. This interpretation avoided entangling courts in the task of having to “assess [the] tone and tenor of communications in search of a clear denial” that would indicate the breakdown of negotiations between the parties. That would permit a plaintiff to delay the discoverability of a claim for “some tactical or other reason” and “inject an unacceptable element of uncertainty into the law of limitation of actions” (at para. 34).

[47]      Similarly, in 407 ETR Concession Company, at para. 47, Laskin J.A. stated that the use of the term “legally appropriate” inMarkel “signified that a plaintiff could not claim it was appropriate to delay the start of the limitation period for tactical reasons, or in circumstances that would later require the court to decide when settlement discussions had become fruitless” (emphasis added).

[48]      These cases instruct that if a plaintiff relies on the exhaustion of some alternative process, such as an administrative or other process, as suspending the discovery of  its claim, the date on which that alternative process has run its course or is exhausted must be reasonably certain or ascertainable by a court.

Accordingly, the motion judge erred in holding that the appellant knew or ought to have known that its proceeding was appropriate as early as April 2010, when it received the CRA’s Notices of Assessment disallowing its tax credits. The proceeding was not appropriate, and the appellant’s underlying claim was not discovered, until May 2011, when the CRA responded to the appellant’s Notice of Objection and advised that it intended to confirm its initial assessments. The motion judge erred by equating knowledge that the respondents had caused a loss with a conclusion that a proceeding would be an appropriate means to seek a remedy for the loss.

Had the respondents together with the tax lawyer prosecuted the CRA appeal successfully, the appellant’s loss would have been substantially eliminated, and it would have been unnecessary to resort to court proceedings to remedy it. The fact that the appellant would have been unable to recover the fees it paid the tax lawyer, except through litigation, was inconsequential. It is the claim that is discoverable, not the full extent of damages the plaintiff may be able to recover. It would not have been appropriate under s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Act for the appellant to commence a proceeding until the respondents ameliorative efforts concluded.

The CRA appeal process had the potential to eliminate the appellant’s loss. As an alternative process to court proceedings, it could have resolved the dispute between the appellant and the respondents. These results would have made a proceeding unnecessary. It would not have been appropriate for the appellant to commence a proceeding until the CRA appeal process was exhausted in May 2011.

The court’s decision in Markel, as interpreted in 407 ETR Concession Company, about the meaning of the concept of a proceeding being “legally appropriate” under s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Act supported the appellant’s position. It was not a case where the appellant sought to toll the operation of the limitation period by relying on the continuation of an alternative process whose end date was uncertain or not reasonably ascertainable. It was clear that the end date of the CRA appeal was when the CRA responded to the appellant’s Notice of Objection advising that it intended to confirm the assessments. Thus the motion judge erred in invoking Markel to dismiss the appellant’s claim as time barred.

A last note: the Court of Appeal seems to still be ignoring its decision in Clarke where it held that  the section 5(1)(a)(iv) discovery criterion requires the claimant to have “good reason to believe he or she has a legal claim for damages”.  I don’t think any decision has followed this construction of the provision.

Ontario: Highways are still subject to limitation periods

The Court of Appeal allowed the 407’s appeal of Justice Edward’s decision in 407 ETR Concession Company Limited v. Day.  Apart from settling the great question of how the passage of time limits 407’s claims for unpaid tolls, Justice Laskin’s decision suggests a maturity in s. 5(1)(a)(iv) jurisprudence.

 The circumstances of the claim are rather bewildering.  The defendant Day, a person of some means, refused to pay the approximately $13,000 plus interest he owed 407 for unpaid tolls.  407 sued him.  Day pleaded a limitations defence, and  407 brought a r. 21 motion to resolve questions of limitations law.  Justice Edwards determined when 407 discovered its claims against Day and rejected the validity of an agreement between Day and 407 extending the limitation period.  407 appealed.

Facts

Some facts are necessary to understand the limitations issue.

407 can collect its unpaid tolls by civil action in the courts or by license plate denial.  The statutory authorization for these two methods is set out in the Highway 407 Act, 1998.

When a person drives a vehicle on the 407, s. 13(1) of the 407 Act provides that the person in whose name the vehicle’s license plate is registered is liable to pay the tolls and related charges.

Sections 15(1) and (2) of the 407 Act provide that tolls are due and payable on the day 407 sends a toll invoice, and that interest begins to accrue 35 days later.  Section 15(3) provides the 407 with a cause of action for nonpayment .

407 can also initiate a license plate denial.  Under s. 16(1) of the 407 Act, if a toll isn’t paid within 35 days after 407 sends an invoice, 407 may send the person responsible for payment a notice of failure to pay.  If the debt remains unpaid 90 days later, s. 22(1) of the 407 Act entitles 407 to notify the Registrar of Motor Vehicles of the failure.  This notice puts the defaulting debtor into license plate denial.  Section 22(3) requires 407 to inform the recipient of a notice sent under s. 16(1) that 407 has given notice to the Registrar.

Once 407 notifies the Registrar, s. 22(4) provides that the Registrar must refuse to validate the vehicle permit issued to the recipient of the s. 16 notice at its next opportunity, and refuse to issue a vehicle permit to that person.  The Registrar’s next opportunity is typically the date the validation for a vehicle permit expires and must be renewed.  The Vehicle Permits Regulation under the Highway Traffic Act  provides that the maximum validation period for a vehicle permit is two years.

Lastly, s. 25 of the 407 Act provides that license plate denial is a complementary rather than exclusive remedy.

The r. 21 motion

407 raised two issues on the motion.

The first issue was the discovery of 407’s claim.  Justice Edwards held that 407 discovered its claim on the earliest date under the 407 Act that it could have notified the Registrar to put Day into license plate denial.

The second issue was the enforceability of the 15-year limitation period in Day’s transponder lease agreement with 407.  Justice Edwards held that 407 could not rely on s. 22 of the Limitations Act, which permits parties to contract out of the basic limitation period, because the lease agreement was not a “business agreement” as defined by that section.

The Court of Appeal’s analysis

Discovery of 407’s claim turned on s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act: when, having regard to the nature of the loss, a proceeding would be an appropriate means to seek to remedy it.

Assessing the date when a civil action became an appropriate means for 407 to recover its loss required considering the purpose of s. 5(1)(a)(iv) in the context of the statutory regime under which 407 operates.

To give effect to the legislature’s intent in the 407 Act, the limitation period must be tied to the license plate denial process: ” The legislature enacted that process for a reason: it was not content to force 407 ETR to sue in the courts for unpaid toll debts. I fully agree with the Divisional Court that licence plate denial is an effective, necessary and indeed integral feature of an open access toll highway. Tying the start date of the limitation period to the licence plate denial process acknowledges the significance the legislature attached to that process for the collection of unpaid tolls.”

A civil action becomes appropriate when 407 has reason to believe that it will not otherwise be paid.  This is when the usually effective license plate denial process runs its course.  This happens when a vehicle permit expires for failure to a pay a toll debt; thereafter, a claim becomes an appropriate remedy to recover the debt and the limitation period commences.

Justice Laskin cited four reasons in support of this conclusion.

[40]      First, under s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act, 2002, the date a proceeding would be an appropriate means to recover a loss must have “regard to the nature of the … loss”. So, in fixing the appropriate date, it may not be enough that the loss exists and the claim is actionable. If the claim is the kind of claim that can be remedied by another and more effective method provided for in the statute, then a civil action will not be appropriate until that other method has been used. Here, a claim will not be appropriate until 407 ETR has used that other method, without success.

[41]      […] licence plate denial – is far more effective than a civil action. By providing for licence plate denial, the legislature must be taken to have recognized its effectiveness. People who cannot renew their vehicle permits until they deal with their toll debts have a powerful incentive to pay.

[42]      The statistical evidence bears out the effectiveness of licence plate denial. 407 ETR issues over one million invoices a month. Nearly 70 per cent of those invoices are paid within one month, which means just over 30 per cent are not. Significantly, about 75 per cent of permit holders in default pay their toll debts after being advised the Registrar has sent a s. 22 notice. Of those, just over one half pay before or on the date their vehicle permits have to be renewed; the remainder pay after their vehicle permits have expired.

[43]      These statistics show that the motion judge’s start date – the delivery of a s. 22 notice to the Registrar – is too early in the process. It comes at the beginning of the process instead of where I think it should come, at the end. The licence plate denial process should be allowed to run its course. As the statistics show, most people, fearing the consequences, eventually pay after receiving a s. 22 notice. Only if the process fails to prompt payment does litigation become an appropriate means to recover the debt.

[44]      Second, in determining when a claim ought to have been discovered, s. 5(1)(b) of the Limitations Act, 2002 requires the court to take account of “the circumstances of the person with the claim”. 407 ETR’s “circumstances” differ from those of many other creditors. Highway 407 itself is enormously busy: 380,000 trips on an average workday. As a consequence, 407 ETR must process an enormous number of invoices, almost all for amounts of no more than a few hundred dollars apiece. And unlike, for example a credit card company, which can cancel a customer’s credit card for non-payment of a debt, 407 ETR cannot bar a defaulting debtor’s access to the highway.

[45]      407 ETR’s “circumstances” strongly suggest that requiring it to sue before finding out whether licence plate denial has achieved its purpose would be inappropriate. An important case on the significance of a plaintiff’s “circumstances” is the majority judgment in Novak v. Bond, 1999 CanLII 685 (SCC), [1999] 1 S.C.R. 808. In that case, McLachlin J. considered s. 6(4)(b) of British Columbia’s Limitations Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 266, which provided that time did not begin to run against a plaintiff until “the person whose means of knowledge is in question ought, in the person’s own interests and taking the person’s circumstances into account, to be able to bring an action” […].

[46]      […] holding that time begins to run against 407 ETR before it knows whether licence plate denial has prompted payment would be unfair, or to use the word of our statute, would not be “appropriate”.

[47]      Holding that the two-year period begins after the licence plate denial process fails to prompt payment does not raise the concern Sharpe J.A. referred to in Markel Insurance Co. of Canada v. ING Insurance Co. of Canada2012 ONCA 218 (CanLII),109 O.R. (3d) 652, at para. 34. There, he said that “appropriate” must mean “legally appropriate”. By using that phrase he signified that a plaintiff could not claim it was appropriate to delay the start of the limitation period for tactical reasons, or in circumstances that would later require the court to decide when settlement discussions had become fruitless. In this case, however, 407 ETR seeks to delay the start of the limitation period for a legally appropriate reason: waiting until a statutorily authorized process has been completed.

[48]      A third consideration is what I take to be an important purpose of s. 5(1)(a)(iv). The overall purposes of limitation statutes are well-established and well-known: certainty, finality and the unfairness of subjecting defendants to the threat of a lawsuit beyond a reasonable period of time. But it seems to me one reason why the legislature added “appropriate means” as an element of discoverability was to enable courts to function more efficiently by deterring needless litigation. As my colleague Juriansz J.A. noted in his dissenting reasons in Hare v. Hare (2006), 2006 CanLII 41650 (ON CA), 83 O.R. (3d) 766 (C.A.), at para. 87, courts take a dim view of unnecessary litigation.

[49]      If the limitation period runs concurrently with the licence plate denial process, as would be the case under the motion judge’s start date, then there would be the real possibility of numerous Small Claims Court claims. And these claims would be needless because the vast majority of defendants would likely pay their debts to avoid having their vehicle permits expire. […]

[51]      Finally, although 407 ETR has discretion when and even whether to send a s. 22 notice to the Registrar, that discretion does not detract from the appropriateness of using the end of the licence plate denial process as the start of the two-year limitation period. In theory, I suppose, as Mr. Day contends, 407 ETR could use its discretion to manipulate the start date. But why, one may ask rhetorically, would it do so? Its commercial interests dictate otherwise.

Justice Laskin also overturned Justice Edwards’s decision on the second limitations issue: whether the lease agreement could extend the applicable limitation period.  Justice Edwards correctly found that the lease agreement was not a business agreement.  However, under s. 22(3) of the Limitations Act, parties can agree to contract out of the basic limitation period even in the absence of a business agreement:

[62]      Under s. 22(3), parties can only suspend or extend the two-year limitation period. Under s. 22(5), parties may vary or exclude altogether the two-year period. Importantly, in s. 22(6) “vary” is defined to include “extend, shorten and suspend”. Thus, parties to an agreement under s. 22(3), such as the transponder lease agreement, in which one party is a consumer, can suspend or extend the two-year limitation period. They cannot, however, shorten it. Only parties to a business agreement can also agree to shorten the two-year period. As Mr. Day’s transponder lease agreement extends the two-year limitation period to 15 years, it is enforceable under s. 22(3).

Day also argued that the 15-year limitation period was unenforceable at common law.  The common law imposes specific requirements on an agreement to vary a limitation period.  These include expressly referring to and excluding the application of the statutory limitation period.  Justice Laskin held that the Court of Appeal decision in Boyce is determinative of the issue:

[68]      The resolution of this issue and its interplay with s. 22 is governed by this court’s decision is Boyce v. The Co-operators General Insurance Co.2013 ONCA 298 (CanLII), 116 O.R. (3d) 56, leave to appeal refused, [2013] S.C.C.A. No. 296. […]

[70]      This court allowed Co-operators’ appeal. The panel held that the agreement was a business agreement, and at para. 16 held that an agreement could be enforceable under s. 22 without any of the requirements imposed by the motion judge:

We cannot accept that an agreement purporting to vary the statutory limitation period is enforceable under s. 22 of the Limitations Act, 2002 only if it contains the specific requirements set out by the motion judge. Nothing in the language of s. 22 offers any support for imposing these requirements. The only limitation in s. 22(5) is found in the definition of “business agreement”. No other limitation appears, expressly or by implication, and certainly no content related requirements appear in s. 22(5).

[71]      Instead, at para. 20, this court set out what was required for the enforceability of an agreement under s. 22:

A court faced with a contractual term that purports to shorten a statutory limitation period must consider whether that provision in “clear language” describes a limitation period, identifies the scope of the application of that limitation period, and excludes the operation of other limitation periods. A term in a contract which meets those requirements will be sufficient for s. 22 purposes, assuming, of course, it meets any of the other requirements specifically identified in s. 22.

[…]

[74]      Specifically in response to Mr. Day’s contention, it is unnecessary to refer expressly to the exclusion of the two-year period. There was no express reference to it in the agreement in the Boyce case, yet this court held the agreement was enforceable under s. 22. Similarly, I would hold that the transponder lease agreement signed by Mr. Day is enforceable under s. 22(3) of theLimitations Act, 2002 and is not rendered unenforceable at common law.

Why this decision matters

I think the real significance of this decision is a s. 5(1)(a)(iv) analysis that suggests s. 5(1)(a)(iv) jurisprudence is maturing into a settled, useful aspect of the discovery analysis.  I note in particular Justice Laskin’s recognition of the novelty of s. 5(1)(a)(iv):

[33]      The appropriateness of bringing an action was not an element of the former limitations statute or the common law discoverability rule. This added element can have the effect – as it does in this case – of postponing the start date of the two-year limitation period beyond the date when a plaintiff knows it has incurred a loss because of the defendant’s actions.

Given the Court of Appeal’s enthusiasm for citing the common law discoverability rule and applying it to limitations analyses under the current Act, this is noteworthy and refreshing.  I’ve written about the damage wrought by the Court of Appeal decision in Lawless, which is frequently cited for its statement of common law discoverability.  If you use the common law test (knowledge of the material facts of a cause of action) to determine the date of discovery, it becomes awkward if not impossible to apply the s. 5(1)(a)(iv), because it’s not a material fact of any cause of action.

I also think Justice Laskin’s consideration of the meaning of “appropriate” is significant:

[34]      Also, when an action is “appropriate” depends on the specific factual or statutory setting of each individual case: see Brown v. Baum2016 ONCA 325 (CanLII), 397 D.L.R. (4th) 161, at para. 21. Case law applying s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act, 2002 is of limited assistance because each case will turn on its own facts.

In Markel, the Court of Appeal defined “appropriate” as “legally appropriate” and discouraged courts from giving it an “evaluative gloss”.  In this paragraph, Justice Laskin cites Brown rather than Markel.  Justice Feldman held in Brown that what is legally appropriate turns on the facts (it was not legally appropriate for the plaintiff in Brown to sue her doctor while he continued to treat her).  Justice Laskin later in his decision considered Markel, and found that it was legally appropriate for 407 not to sue Day until the statutorily authorised plate denial process completed.

The Court of Appeal may have defined “appropriate” as “legally appropriate”, but as a practical matter the meaning of “legally appropriate” seems to be settling as “what is appropriate in the circumstances of the case”. I think this is a reasonable approach, though it doesn’t bring any more certainty to the commencement of limitation periods.

Interestingly, Justice Laskin does not cite Justice Juriansz’s decision in Clarke, where he gave “appropriate” an especially expansive meaning (“appropriate” means having good reason to believe there is a legal claim).  Clarke‘s influence on s. 5(1)(a)(iv) jurisprudence may prove to be limited.

Justice Laskin’s analysis also raises some interesting questions:

  • A civil action became appropriate when 407 had reason to believe that it will not otherwise be paid. Does this reasoning apply to other claims arising out of non-payment of invoices? If I bill you for my services, does my claim become appropriate only when it becomes reasonable for me to believe that you won’t pay me?
  • The fact that 407 could remedy its claim against Day by “another and more effective method” was a consideration in the s. 5(1)(a)(iv) analysis. The more effective remedy was statutory, which I think will limit the relevance of this decision to other s. 5(1)(a)(iv) analyses.  Still, what if another more effective non-statutory remedy is available? For example, what if the statistics indicate that engaging a collection agency to recover my many small debts is more effective than small claims court? Will a legal claim only become appropriate when the collection agency’s efforts fail?

Ontario: Where have all the 5(1)(a)(iv) analyses gone?

Today we consider why section 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act features so infrequently in limitations analyses, and by extension, a trend in the jurisprudence toward analyses based on the common law principle of discoverability rather than the Limitations Act.

Section 5(1) of the Limitations Act provides the requirements for subjective discovery of a claim:

(1) A claim is discovered on the earlier of,

(a) the day on which the person with the claim first knew,

(i) that the injury, loss or damage had occurred,

(ii) that the injury, loss or damage was caused by or contributed to by an act or omission,

(iii) that the act or omission was that of the person against whom the claim is made, and

(iv) that, having regard to the nature of the injury, loss or damage, a proceeding would be an appropriate means to seek to remedy it […]

Subject to a few notable exceptions, you rarely see a limitations analysis that turns on the fourth requirement, the appropriateness of a proceeding as a remedy.

My working theory is that, at least in recent years, this is largely the result of the Court of Appeal decision in Lawless v. Anderson (2011). Lawless has two much-cited paragraphs describing discoverability:

 

[22]         The principle of discoverability provides that “a cause of action arises for the purposes of a limitation period when the material facts on which it is based have been discovered, or ought to have been discovered, by the plaintiff by the exercise of reasonable diligence.  This principle conforms with the generally accepted definition of the term ‘cause of action’ – the fact or facts which give a person a right to judicial redress or relief against another”: Aguonie v. Galion Solid Waste Material Inc. (1998), 1998 CanLII 954 (ON CA), 38 O.R. (3d) 161 (C.A.), at p. 170.

[23]         Determining whether a person has discovered a claim is a fact-based analysis.  The question to be posed is whether the prospective plaintiff knows enough facts on which to base an allegation of negligence against the defendant.  If the plaintiff does, then the claim has been “discovered”, and the limitation begins to run: see Soper v. Southcott (1998), 1998 CanLII 5359 (ON CA), 39 O.R. (3d) 737 (C.A.) and McSween v. Louis (2000), 2000 CanLII 5744 (ON CA), 132 O.A.C. 304 (C.A.).

What’s noteworthy about this description, and to my knowledge never mentioned in the decisions that rely on it, is that this is the common law principle of discoverability. This is why the authorities cited by the Court in support of the principle all predate the current Limitations Act.

The legislature codified the common law principle of discoverability into section 5 of the Limitations Act, but not without materially altering it. Section 5 doesn’t use the language of “cause of action” (nor does the Limitation Act generally), and, above all, by operation of 5(1)(a)(iv) it makes the appropriateness of the proceeding a condition of discovery.

You can square sections 5(1)(a)(i) – (iii) with the common law principle of discoverability. These provisions require the claimant to know facts that comprise, more or less, the elements of most causes of action (that is, for any cause of action to accrue there needs to be injury caused by someone to the plaintiff). However, it’s a lot more difficult to square section 5(1)(a)(iv) with the common law principle. I can’t think of any cause of action that has as an element the appropriateness of a legal proceeding.

If you use the principle of discoverability in Lawless as the starting point of a discovery analysis, you either need to adopt an expansive and awkward limitations-specific definition of cause of action, which I don’t see happening, or you discount (if not ignore entirely) section 5(1)(a)(iv). And so we see so many limitations decisions since Lawless that don’t consider whether the appropriateness of a proceeding affects the commencement of the limitation period.

There are other reasons for this, too, I suspect. The jurisprudence offers rather little guidance on the meaning of “appropriate”. The leading decision, as you’ll see below, defines it vaguely as “legal appropriateness”.

In any event, this is all to say that it’s refreshing to encounter Brown v. Baum, a medical malpractice decision in which Justice Mew concludes that section 5(1)(a)(iv) operated to delay the commencement of the limitation period. This is the decision you should look to when considering a section 5(1)(a)(iv) response to a limitations defence.

Dr. Baum performed plastic surgery on Brown. It did not have the desired effect. Brown sued Baum, who moved for summary judgment on the basis of a limitations defence. The relevant paragraphs follow:

[41]           The defendant argues that by no later than July 2009, Ms. Brown had independently formed the view that Dr. Baum had done something wrong. Even if it accepted that Ms. Brown was not informed of all of the risks associated with the procedures she underwent, she knew that things had not gone well.  She did not need a second opinion or legal advice to reach that conclusion.

[42]           I agree with the defendant.  That does not, however, end the analysis.

[43]           There are four limbs to s. 5(1)(a) of The Limitation Act, 2002. All four must be satisfied before time will start to run against a plaintiff.

[44]           It is clear from the record that while Ms. Brown, by no later than July 2009, knew that (a) an injury loss or damage had occurred; (b) that the injury loss or damage had been caused or contributed to by an act or omission; and (c) that the act or omission was that of Dr. Baum; the fourth limb must also be established, namely, “that, having regard to the nature of the injury, loss or damage, a proceeding would be an appropriate means to seek to remedy it”.

[45]           Following the initial surgery in March 2009, Ms. Brown returned to Dr. Baum on a number of occasions, including several surgeries, during the course of which Dr. Baum attempted to improve the outcome of the initial surgery.

[46]           Although this action was started well in excess of two years after both the March 2009 surgery and July 2009 (by which time Ms. Brown had formed the view that Dr. Baum had done something wrong), it was commenced within two years of the last in the series of surgical procedures undertaken by Dr. Baum, which was on 16 June 2010.

[47]           In Markel Insurance Company of Canada v. ING Insurance Company of Canada, 2012 ONCA 218 (CanLII) at para. 34, the Court of Appeal considered the meaning of the term “appropriate” in the context of s. 5(1)(a)(iv). According to Sharpe J.A.:

…I fully accept that parties should be discouraged from rushing to litigation or arbitration and encouraged to discuss and negotiate claims. In my view, when s. 5(1)(a)(iv) states that a claim is “discovered” only when “having regard to the nature of the injury, loss or damage, a proceeding would be an appropriate means to seek to remedy it”, the word “appropriate” must mean legally appropriate. To give “appropriate” an evaluative gloss, allowing a party to delay the commencement of proceedings for some tactical or other reason beyond two years from the date the claim is fully ripened…would, in my opinion, inject an unacceptable element of uncertainty into the law of limitation of actions.

[48]           Where, as in the present case, the defendant has conducted a series of surgical procedures on the plaintiff over 15 months with the goal of producing an optimal outcome, the limitation issue which arises is whether it would have been “appropriate” for the plaintiff to commence a proceeding against the defendant before the last in the series of surgeries performed by him.

[49]           Dr. Baum performed a series of surgeries on Ms. Brown over a period of 15 months. The defendant argues that, assuming that time would run from either March 2009 (the date of the first surgery) or July 2009 (the time by which the first three limbs of s. 5(1)(a)(iv) had been satisfied), even if Ms. Brown had wanted to refrain from commencing an action until she stopped seeing Dr. Baum, there would have been time for her to have done so following the final consultation visit in June 2010.

[50]           This argument misses the point of subparagraph (iv), which is to delay the commencement of the limitation period until such time as initiating a proceeding is an appropriate remedy. The point can be illustrated by assuming that, instead of the series of surgeries having been conducted over 15 months, the time span between the first surgery and the last surgery was, say, 36 months. If one assumes that the date of the first surgery is the date on which the limitation period runs (which, presumptively, it would be: Limitations Act, s. 5(2)), then the plaintiff would be required to commence an action against the defendant while still receiving treatment from him. The service of a statement of claim on a treating physician by a patient would almost certainly result in a termination of the doctor-patient relationship and, hence, efforts to ameliorate – or remedy – the patient’s condition through continued treatment of the plaintiff patient by the physician.

[51]           When considering the recommendation of legislation identical to s. 5(1)(a)(iv) in British Columbia, the British Columbia Ministry of Justice observed (The New Limitation ActExplained (Victoria, Civil Policy and Legislation Office, Ministry of Justice: 2013) (online www.ag.gov.bc.ca/legislation/limitation-act/pdf/LA_Explained.pdf at 26) that the provision:

…recognizes that courts will continue to have considerable discretion in interpreting the meaning of the discovery test, in order to come to a just result, and to achieve fairness for plaintiffs.

[52]           Each case will, of course, turn on its particular facts. It will not be every case in which the fact that a physician-patient relationship is ongoing that it would be appropriate to toll the running of the limitation period until that relationship has terminated.  Nor in every case where there is a series of surgical procedures undertaken will time not run until the last of those procedures has been undertaken.  It will depend on the facts and circumstances.

[53]           In the present case the defendant continued for over a year after the initial surgery to achieve a better outcome for the plaintiff.  There was no doubt about what he was doing or why he was doing it.  There is no indication in the evidence that the defendant was motivated by a concern to minimise his potential liability to the plaintiff.  It would be unreasonable and inappropriate in such circumstances to start the two year limitation clock running against Ms. Brown while the defendant’s good faith efforts to achieve a medical remedy continued.

[54]           In my view, the effect of s. 5(1)(a)(iv) in the present case is to delay the commencement of the two year limitation period until no earlier than the date of the last surgery on 16 June 2010.[1] As the plaintiff’s action was commenced within two years of that date, the action is not statute barred.  There is no triable issue based on the limitation defence.  The defendant’s motion for summary judgment is therefore dismissed.

Note that applying the common law principle of discoverablity from Lawless to these facts (instead of the Limitations Act) would almost certainly have resulted in the limitations defence succeeding.