Ontario: An insurer’s denial has to be (really) explicit to trigger discovery

The Divisional Court decision in Western Life Assurance Company v. Penttila demonstrates that if an insurer intends for a denial to commence a limitation period for a coverage proceeding, that denial needs to be as explicit as explicit can be.

The insurer, Western, denied its insured Penttila’s claim for LTD benefits in February 2013, and told her that she could appeal the denial within 60 days by written request.  At the same time, Western stated explicitly that it wasn’t waiving its right to rely on any “time limitations”.

Penttila initiated an appeal within the prescribed time.  Western wrote to Penttila in October 2014 that its position “remained unchanged”.  Pentilla didn’t understand this to mean Western had denied her appeal.  She wrote to Western in May 2015 asking about the decision in her appeal.  Western responded in June 2015 by confirming that benefits remained declined.  Penttila commenced a proceeding in June 2016.  Western defended, pleaded a limitations defence, and moved for judgment on it.  The motion judge held that a trial was necessary to determine the defence.

Penttila’s evidence was that she believed Western continued to consider appeal June 2015.  She didn’t understand Western October 2013 correspondence to be determinative of her appeal.

Western appealed. It argued that the Penttila should have known that a proceeding was an appropriate remedy for her loss once it terminated her LTD benefits.

Penttila’s position was that a proceeding wasn’t appropriate as of that date:

[24]           Ms. Penttila takes the position that it was not appropriate for her to file a claim as of March 7, 2013, as her appeal had not yet been finally determined by Western because:

a)   She was told she had a right to appeal provided she took certain steps which she did.  It was therefore not clear that the process had run its course;

 b)   There was no denial of the appeal or any reason to believe that the matter would not be amicably resolved;

 c)   She was not represented by legal counsel;

 d)   There was no clear reference to the fact that the limitation period was running in the communications from the insurer.  The insurer said only that “the limit”, whatever it was, was not being waived;

 e)   She made concessions and repaid monies paid pursuant to her CPP disability setoff, believing that she was engaging in an attempt at dispute resolution.  This was done at the request of the insurer;

 f)     There was no reason for her to do this except to attempt to resolve the claim instead of litigating; and

 g)   There is no suggestion that the delay was a tactical decision to delay the proceeding.

[25]           Moreover, the courts have recognized that there is a clear policy objective to encourage parties to resolve matters instead of going directly to litigation.  Waiting for the appeal to be determined is consistent with that important policy objective.

The Divisional Court rejected Western’s argument:

[50]           For the reasons set out herein, we find that the motion judge was correct to hold that the triggering event for the commencement of the two-year limitation period was the date upon which it would be legally appropriate to commence legal proceedings to seek payment of long-term disability benefits that the insurer refused to pay.

[51]           We further find that the motion judge made no palpable and overriding error in dismissing the motion for summary judgment on the basis that Western had not established that the claim was statute-barred.  We come to this conclusion for the following reasons:

(i)                 Right of Appeal

[52]           Before March 7, 2013, Ms. Penttila was advised that as of March 7, her benefits would no longer be paid by the insurer but that, “you may appeal this claim decision by sending your written request for review to our office within 60 days from the date of this letter.”

[53]           On April 8, 2013, Ms. Penttila advised that, “I wish to appeal this claim.”

[54]           On November 13, 2013, Western wrote her to advise that: “[u]pon receipt of all the above requested information, we will complete our review of your appeal and advise you of the decision.”

[55]           Ms. Penttila thereby accepted a clear offer to allow her to appeal the denial of her claim for benefits.  A process was established, and her appeal was determined by the insurer.  She was advised by letter dated October 21, 2014, of the decision that her appeal had been rejected.  (Ms. Penttila says she did not receive written confirmation until June 15, 2015.)

[56]           The right to appeal was not simply part of an insurer’s general obligation to accept any material; it was a specific and agreed right of appeal, a clear articulation of the process to be followed, and a specific decision in respect of the appeal.

[57]           A reasonable person in Ms. Penttila’s position would have pursued her right of appeal.  Until that process ran its course, it would be premature to commence legal proceedings against the insurer.

(ii)               No Need to Review the Tone and Tenor of Discussions

[58]           The court was not required to assess the “tone and tenor” of communications between the parties as there was a clear beginning and end to the process.  Western told Ms. Penttila that she had a right to appeal and that a decision would be rendered, and it was.

(iii)            No Litigation Counsel Engaged

[59]           Ms. Penttila did not retain counsel while the appeal was ongoing. This fact does not “[belie] any suggestion of a lack of awareness of the appropriateness of commencing a lawsuit at that point in time”: Pepper, at para. 1.

[60]           The words “in offering to review additional evidence we are not waiving our right to rely on any statutory or policy provisions including any time limitations”, in this factual context, were not sufficiently clear to demonstrate to Ms. Penttila that the insurer intended to rely on the fact that the limitation period was running before the appeal had been decided.

(iv)            Ms. Penttila’s Evidence as to Her Belief

[61]           On the contrary, Ms. Penttila’s uncontradicted sworn evidence was that she at all times believed that, from the time the initial benefits were denied (in the letter dated February 19, 2013), to the time she received the final decision on appeal, Western was considering her appeal.

[62]           This belief is supported by the fact that, on November 13, 2013, Western advised that: “[u]pon receipt of all the above requested information, we will complete our review of your appeal and advise you of the decision.”  There was no statement in respect of time limitations.

[63]           Lastly, unlike Nasr, Ms. Penttila never conceded that the insurer never told her that it would not be relying on a limitations defence.

(v)               No Tactical Delay

[64]           Ms. Penttila made good faith efforts to avoid unnecessary litigation believing Western was considering her appeal. There is no suggestion that Ms. Penttila engaged in a tactical delay of the proceeding.

(vi)            Meets the Policy Objectives

[65]           The motion judge’s decision is consistent with the policy objective of avoiding unnecessary litigation and discouraging parties from rushing to litigation, provided there is no tactical delay.

The court also provided a good summary of the principles for assessing the appropriateness of a proceeding against an insurer:

[35]           In assessing when it is legally “appropriate” to bring a proceeding within the meaning of s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act, 2002, the courts have articulated the following guidelines:

a)      The determination of whether legal action is “legally appropriate” takes into account what a reasonable person with the abilities and in the circumstances of the plaintiff ought to have known: Presidential, at para. 18.

b)      Parties should be discouraged from rushing to litigation or arbitration.  Rather, they should be encouraged to resolve claims as courts take a dim view of unnecessary litigation: Markel Insurance Company of Canada v. ING Insurance Company of Canada2012 ONCA 218 (CanLII)109 O.R. (3d) 652, at para. 34; and 407 ETR, at para. 48.

c)      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 exhaustive: Volochay v. College of Massage Therapists of Ontario2012 ONCA 541 (CanLII)111 O.R. (3d) 561, at paras. 61-70.

d)      However, where the insurer has been clear that it intends to rely on the limitation period, and the claim has “ripened”, the court should be wary of getting involved in assessing the “tone and tenor of communications” to determine where and when there was a denial of the claim by the insurer as this would inject an undesirable element of uncertainty into the law of limitation of actions: Markel, at para. 34.

e)      The courts should also be wary of allowing a party to delay the commencement of proceedings simply for tactical reasons: 407ETR, at para. 47; and Markel, at para. 34.

f)        It is appropriate for the court to consider what was communicated to the insured and whether the claim was clearly and unequivocally denied: Kassburg v. Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada2014 ONCA 922 (CanLII)124 O.R. (3d) 171, at para. 42.

g)      The courts have specifically recognized two circumstances in which the issue of “appropriate means” may delay the date on which a claim was discovered.

•         First, where the insured relies on the superior knowledge and expertise of the insurer, especially where the insurer made efforts to ameliorate the loss.

•         Second, where other proceedings remain ongoing (such as criminal proceedings or arbitration): Presidential, at paras. 28-48.

h)      Where an insured seeks to preclude an insurer from relying on a limitations defence on the basis of promissory estoppel, the insurer’s conduct must amount to a promise on which the insured acted to its detriment: Maracle v. Travellers Indemnity Co. of Canada, 1991 CanLII 58 (SCC)[1991] 2 S.C.R. 50; and Marchischuk v. Dominion Industrial Supplies Ltd., 1991 CanLII 59 (SCC)[1991] 2 S.C.R. 61.

 

Ontario: It’s still a two-year limitation period for IRB claims

 

In Bonilla v. Preszler,  the appellant argued that the respondent’s termination notice for her Income Replacement Benefits was not clear and unequivocal and that the applicable limitation period was “rolling”.  This was a futile position and the Court of Appeal rejected it.

[10]      It is well established in this court’s case law that the limitation period is triggered by a single event, which is the refusal of an insurer to pay the IRB claimed: see e.g. Bonaccorso v. Optimum Insurance Company Inc., 2016 ONCA 34 (CanLII), 129 O.R. (3d) 544 and Sietzema v. Economical Mutual Insurance Company, 2014 ONCA 111 (CanLII), 118 O.R. (3d) 713. The appellant was informed on February 4, 2003 that she would not receive IRB after February 27, 2003. Even taking the later of these two dates, February 27, 2003, as the date of the refusal, the two-year limitation period expired February 27, 2005. The appellant’s action is several years late.

[11]      The appellant submits that this court’s prior cases are either distinguishable or are wrongly decided and offers several arguments in support. She submits that the limitation period covers only the amount of a benefit claimed, and not the nature of the benefit; that the cause of action for IRB is an “entitlement to indemnification”; that the amount claimed is limited to an amount accrued or crystallized, rather than future benefits; and that the common law discoverability rule applies.

[12]      We do not accept any of these arguments. In our view the operation of the limitation period under the legislation is clear and straightforward. It is well settled in the case law of this court, and it would be inappropriate for a three-judge panel of the court to overrule a prior decision of the court in any event. We note that the appellant requested, and was denied, a five-judge panel for this appeal.