Ontario: Court of Appeal emphasises that discovery is contextual

The Court of Appeal’s decision in Fehr v. Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada is noteworthy for it its emphasis on the contextual nature of the discovery analysis:

[173]   However, when it came to assessing the limitation period defences applicable to the individual plaintiffs, the motions judge did not engage in a detailed examination of these idiosyncrasies. In particular, he did not consider the impact of each plaintiff’s circumstances and experiences on the critical issue of when each plaintiff discovered his or her claim or knew or ought to have known of the requisite facts grounding their claim. He failed to engage in an individualized and contextual analysis, and, instead, applied a broad presumption as to when they ought to have known of certain alleged misrepresentations.

[174]   An individualized and contextual analysis was necessary in this case for the very reason that misrepresentation claims are not generally amenable to class actions: people receive, process, and act upon written and verbal statements in different ways. Their behaviour varies depending upon a variety of factors, including their own particular circumstances, what specific representations and information they received and from whom, how they understood or processed those representations and information, the extent to which they relied upon them, and their own wishes and intentions.

[175]   An individualized and contextual analysis was particularly important in this case because, among other things: (a) there is a relationship of vulnerability between insurer and insured; (b) many of the plaintiffs are unsophisticated with respect to the insurance industry; (c) the insurance policies are complicated and not easily understood; (d) misrepresentations were made to some consumers and not others; (e) some or all of these misrepresentations were made by individuals on whom the plaintiffs might reasonably rely; (f) there is no evidence that the insurer expressly corrected the misrepresentations; and (g) the insurer may have reinforced or made further misrepresentations, to some or all of the plaintiffs, during the life of the policies.

Ontario: Court of Appeal affirms that discovery of a cause of action isn’t discovery of a claim

The Court of Appeal decision in Gillham v. Lake of Bays (Township) is noteworthy for two  reasons.

First, it uses the concept of the “claim” (which is the language of the Limitations Act) rather than the concept of the “cause of action” (which is not the language of the Limitations Act) for its limitations analysis.  See for example para. 20:

[20]      The overarching question in the discoverability analysis under s. 5 of the Act is whether the claimant knew or reasonably should have known, exercising reasonable diligence, the material facts stipulated under s. 5(1)(a) that give rise to a claim: Ferrara v. Lorenzetti, Wolfe Barristers and Solicitors2012 ONCA 851 (CanLII), 113 O.R. (3d) 401, at para. 32. Section 1 of the Act defines a claim as “a claim to remedy an injury, loss or damage that occurred as a result of an act or omission”. Section 2(1) provides that the Act “applies to claims pursued in court proceedings” (with certain enumerated exceptions that do not apply here).

(A slight quibble: the s. 5(1)(a) matters do not give rise to a claim.  Only two facts—an act or omission resulting in injury, loss, or damage—give rise to a claim pursuant to its definition in s. 1.  Knowledge of the s. 5(1)(a) matter results in discovery of the claim.)

It even puts “cause of action” in quotation marks–presumably to distinguish it from a claim–in the context of stating that knowledge of the material facts of a cause of action is not discovery of a claim:

[33]      The motion judge erred in failing to undertake an analysis of the criterion under s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Act. That the appellants might have a “cause of action” against the defendants, as the motion judge found, is not the end of the analysis under s. 5(1) of the Act. As this court said in Kudwah v. Centennial Apartments2012 ONCA 777 (CanLII), 223 A.C.W.S. (3d) 225, at para. 2:

It is important when considering a limitation period claim to appreciate that the terms of the 2002 Act must govern. A court considering the limitation claim must address the specific requirements of s. 5 of the Act, particularly on the facts of this case, the requirement of s. 5(1)(a)(iv).

 

Second, it acknowledges the accrual of a claim as the starting point of the limitations analysis, and that discovery of the claim requires knowledge that a proceeding is an appropriate remedy for the loss:

[34]      Therefore, the motion judge had to consider whether the appellants had a claim as defined under the Act. In considering whether the appellants knew or should have known that they had a claim, the motion judge had to go on to consider whether, having regard to the nature of the injury, loss or damage, the appellants knew or should have known that a proceeding would be an appropriate means to seek to remedy it. This omission by the motion judge is an error of law: Har Jo Management Services Canada Ltd. v. York (Regional Municipality)2018 ONCA 469 (CanLII), at paras. 21 and 35.

[35]      Section 5(1)(a)(iv) represents a legislative addition to the other factors under the discoverability analysis. As Laskin J.A. explained in 407 ETR Concession Company Limited v. Day2016 ONCA 709 (CanLII), 133 O.R. (3d) 762, leave to appeal to SCC refused, [2016] S.C.C.A. No. 509, at paras. 33-34:

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.

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.

This is a very welcome statement from the Court of Appeal.  It’s a step away from the misapplication of common law discovery principles to limitations analyses that has caused a great deal of confusion and uncertainty.

Lastly, the decision finds that it was appropriate for the plaintiffs to “wait and see” in the context of a construction dispute before commencing a proceeding.  I often see it argued that Presidential stands for the principle that there are only two circumstances in which a proceeding will be an inappropriate remedy—where the defendant undertakes good faith ameliorative efforts or there is an alternative dispute resolution process. This is a misapprehension of the law, as this decision demonstrates.  Here’s the key analysis:

[37]      Here, the motion judge failed to consider “the specific factual or statutory setting” of the case before him and determine whether it was reasonable for the appellants not to immediately commence litigation but to “wait and see” if the 1 ¼ inch sinking of the deck pier observed in 2009 would worsen over time or if the issue would resolve once the stone retaining wall had settled, as had been suggested to the appellants by Mr. MacKay. Neither Royal Homes nor Mr. MacKay believed the problem was serious, or due to the manner of construction. This evidence does not support the conclusion that the appellants knew or ought to have known in 2009 that their loss was not trivial and initiating legal proceedings was the appropriate means to remedy their loss.

 

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: the limitation of unpaid invoice claims

In Newman Bros. v. Universal Resource Recovery Inc., the defendant ventured a dubious limitations defence based on the argument that a plaintiff who delivers multiple invoices has to commence a separate action in regards of those invoices.  The court rejected it:

[26]      The defendants submit that the limitation period begins to run under this particular contract 16 days after the delivery of each invoice, and therefore separate actions would have to be commenced at different times whenever there was a delay in the payment of a particular invoice. I reject such an argument as not commercially reasonable, unduly onerous on the parties, and a potential waste of judicial resources.

[27]     As was stated in 407 ETR at para. 39:

A civil action becomes appropriate when 407 ETR has reason to believe it will not otherwise be paid – in other words, when the usually effective license plate denial process has run its course. Thus the date when a vehicle permit expires for failure to pay a toll debt is the date a civil action is an appropriate means to recover a debt. This date starts the two-year limitation period.

 [28]      I accept the position of the plaintiff that it trusted the defendants, it did not want to jeopardize a long standing business relationship and it believed, from the promises made, that payment would be forthcoming and in fact some were. That in my view was a reasonable basis, and reasonable consideration to forebear on issuing the claim to see if further payments would be forth coming.

[29]       I conclude that I have not been persuaded by the defendants, based on the record before me, that the legally appropriate time to sue was two years after the August 2009 payment. Indeed, I find the argument of the plaintiff has merit. It was promised further funds, there were no objections to the invoices submitted or the work done, and it received further funds in May 2011after receiving such promises of payment.

[31]     Based on this record one would have difficulty thinking that the defendants thought the May 31, 2011 payment was all they potentially owed, or that, the plaintiff thought that that payment had satisfied the debt (see s. 13(1) of the Limitations Act, 2002; see also Buik Estate v. Canasia Power Corp., 2014 ONCA 2959 at paras. 13-15).

This seems like a sound analysis, and one which underscores that a plaintiff doesn’t necessarily discover a claim arising from unpaid invoices on the date the invoices become due and aren’t paid (though note that the impact of s. 13—an acknowledgment—is unrelated to discovery).

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: the timing of amendments to plead discoverability

Marvelous Mario’s Inc. et al. v. St. Paul Fire And Marine Insurance Co.  provides authority for the principle that an amendment to plead discoverability is available at any time:

[52]           The plaintiffs’ pleading is silent as to discoverability. Recognizing the gap in their pleading, the plaintiffs have moved for an order allowing them to amend their pleading to plead discoverability. St. Paul takes no position on the motion. Rule 26.01 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, R.R.O. 1990, Reg. 194allows for an amendment to be made at any time, even after the conclusion of trial: Hardy v. Herr, 1965 CanLII 225 (ON CA)[1965] 2 O.R. 801 (Ont. C.A.), at para. 2. Discoverability was an issue thoroughly canvassed at trial. I see no prejudice to St. Paul in granting the amendment. Accordingly, the plaintiffs’ motion to amend their statement of claim to plead discoverability is granted.

All of that said, it’s worth noting that the facts setting up a discovery argument are properly pleaded in reply.

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: sometimes issuing a statement of claim doesn’t mean discovery of the claim

 

Is commencing a proceeding in respect of a claim determinative of the discovery of that claim?  Not always, according to the Court of Appeal in Har Jo Management Services Canada Ltd. V. York (Regional Municipality).

Flood waters flowing from adjacent land, which the respondent municipality had expropriated for a construction project, damaged the appellant’s property.

In 2011, the appellant commenced proceeding before the Ontario Municipal Board claiming damages for injurious affection in respect of the expropriation.

On June 3, 2013, the appellant sent a letter to the respondent stating that its activities on the adjacent land caused the flooding and resulting damage.  The respondent denied causing the flooding on June 28, 2013.

The appellant commenced an action two years form the respondent’s denial.  The respondent pleaded a limitations defence and move for summary judgment .

The Statement of Claim tracked the language of the appellant’s claim to the respondent.  The Motion Judge found that the appellant knew of his claim on the day he issued it.

Not so, held the Court of Appeal.  The Expropriations Act provides for damages for injurious affection and gives the OMB exclusive jurisdiction to award such damages.  If the flooding damage was caused by the respondent’s construction, the Superior Court would have no jurisdiction to hear the claim.

The appellant’s evidence explained that, to the extent the damage from the flood properly formed part of a claim for damages for injurious affection under the Expropriations Act, it would be part of the appellant’s existing OMB claim.  The action was merely “out of an abundance of caution” in case it turned out that the flooding was not caused by the respondent’s construction, but by some other factors that did not meet the definition of injurious affection.

There was no suggestion that something other than the construction might have caused the flooding until the respondent’s June 28, 2013 letter.  It was on this date that that appellant knew that a proceeding was an appropriate remedy for a claim against the respondent and not a proceeding before the OMB.

The curious aspect of this decision is that issuing a statement of claim (or even drafting the statement of claim) was not determinative of the discovery of the claim it pleads.  There is authority for the principle that it is logically inconsistent for a plaintiff to commence an action before discovering a claim.  See also s. 14(3) of the Limitations Act.

It’s certainly hard to understand how a court could find that a statement of claim does not indicate discovery of the claim pleaded in it, or that objective discovery can occur after subjective discovery.

Here, the Court seems to have avoided this problem by finding that the appellant’s evidence demonstrated that the statement of claim did not indicate subjective discovery of the claim.  This is likely to happen very rarely, and I expect that this decision will be an outlier.

I think the limitations defence might have been avoided if the statement of claim (which I haven’t seen) had pleaded explicitly that it advanced a claim only in regards of the damage that was not within the OMB’s exclusive jurisdiction.

Ontario: Rebutting presumptive discovery is the plaintiff’s burden

The Court of Appeal decision in O’Brien-Glabb v. National Bank of Canada states the principle that the plaintiff bears the onus of establishing the inappropriateness of a proceeding as part of a discovery argument:

[13]      We agree with the appellant that it was the respondent who bore the onus of leading evidence to establish on a balance of probabilities that a proceeding was not appropriate in 2010 (see: Miaskowski (Litigation guardian of) v. Persaud2015 ONCA 758(CanLII) at para 27Fennell v. Deol2016 ONCA 249 (CanLII) at para16; and Galota v. Festival Hall Developments Ltd.2016 ONCA 585 (CanLII) at para 15).

Even a vague familiarity with the operation of s. 5 of the Limitations Act means this principle is self-evident, but it’s nevertheless helpful to have it stated explicitly.

Ontario: discovery doesn’t require knowledge of culpability

Update: The Supreme Court denied leave to appeal.

In Dale v. Frank, the Court of Appeal reiterated that discovery of a claim doesn’t require knowledge that the defendant’s act or omission was culpable.  To require a plaintiff to know with certainty that the defendant’s wrongful conduct caused her injuries would require her to come to a legal conclusion as to the defendant’s liability.  This is too a high a bar, and not what s. 5(1) of the Limitations Act requires.

The Appellants also argued that the motion judge erred by failing to consider s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act in her analysis. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument.  The reasons permitted the inference that the motion judge considered this discovery matter:

[9]         We are not persuaded by this submission. Although the motion judge did not undertake a distinct analysis under this provision, her conclusion that each of the appellants knew or ought to have known of the other elements in s. 5(1)(a) was sufficient to infer that she also concluded that the appellants knew or ought to have known that a proceeding would be an appropriate means to seek a remedy for their losses even before the 2011 press release about Dr. Frank.

Unfortunately, in making this point the Court quoted its decision in Lawless for the principle that discovery requires the prospective plaintiff to know the material facts necessary to make a claim.  Knowledge of the material facts of the claim does not include knowledge of the matter in s. 5(1)(a)(iv)—that a claim is an appropriate remedy to the loss.  It’s disappointing to see the Court of Appeal continuing to rely on Lawless, given the mischief it causes.