Supreme Court says no, plaintiffs don’t need to control when they commence actions

In Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce v. Green, the Supreme Court rejected a basic principle of limitations law: the plaintiff must always be in control of when it commences a proceeding.

This appeal concerned the interaction of the limitation period in section 138 of the Ontario Securities Act and section 28 of the Class Proceedings Act, which suspends the limitation period applicable to all the causes of action asserted in a class proceeding.

Section 138.3 creates a cause of action for misrepresentations regarding shares trading in the secondary market. A plaintiff, most often a representative plaintiff in a class proceeding, can only commence a section 138.3 claim with leave, and has three years from the date of the misrepresentation to obtain leave and do so.  In Sharma v. Timminco, the Court of Appeal held that a claim for damages under section 138.3 is statute-barred if the plaintiff does not obtain leave to commence it within the limitation period, and that section 28 of the Class Proceedings Act did not operate in respect of a 138.3 claim until leave is obtained.

The Timminco decision was problematic. Its effect was to require representative plaintiffs to move for and obtain leave to commence a section 138.3 claim within three years, but the plaintiffs could not control the timeliness. Obtaining leave within three years was challenging, if not impossible.  Even if a plaintiff brought the motion in good time, the defendant could initiate procedural steps resulting in delay, and court availability could affect the timing of the hearing and the rendering of the decision.  In the context of limitations jurisprudence, this was both novel and perverse: plaintiffs did not control whether they commenced their action in time.

In this action, the Court of Appeal reversed itelf and set aside Timminco’s interpretation of the Class Proceedings Act, holding instead that when a representative plaintiff brings a section 138.3 claim within the limitation period, pleads section 138.3 together with the facts that found the claim, and pleads an intent to seek leave to commence, the claim has been “asserted” for the purposes of the Class Proceedings Act, and the limitation period is thereby suspended for all class members.

Subsequently, the legislature amended the Securities Act so that the limitation period is suspended on the filing of a motion for leave.   However, the issue remained live for actions commenced before the amendments, and so the Supreme Court heard the appeal.  In a lengthy decision from a fractured court, it overturned the Court of Appeal’s decision.

From a limitations perspective, the noteworthy aspect of the decision is the court’s willingness to accept that a plaintiff will not in all circumstances retain control of bringing its action in time.  This was a foremost concern for the Court of Appeal.

Justice Côté stated that requiring the plaintiff to have unilateral control over whether a claim is brought in time is misplaced, and fails to acknowledge that “modern limitation periods” balance the rights of the plaintiffs and the defendants:

[79]                          The Court of Appeal wrote that the effect of Timminco, namely that a plaintiff does not unilaterally control whether his or her claim is brought within the limitation period (because of the starting point of the limitation period or because of delays caused by the defendant or the court), was “foreign to the concept of a limitation provision” (para. 27). In my view, the Court of Appeal failed to appreciate not only that modern limitation periods flow from an exercise in balancing the rights of plaintiffs and defendants, but also that the legislature undertook that balancing exercise in designing the limitation period in question. Section 138.14 OSA does not have an internal suspension mechanism, and the limitation period begins to run regardless of knowledge on the plaintiff’s part, be it on when a document containing a misrepresentation is released, when an oral statement containing a misrepresentation is made, or when there is a failure to make timely disclosure. The scheme is exacting and even harsh, but it is structured in this manner to balance the interests of plaintiffs, defendants and long-term shareholders.

This reasoning is hard to understand.  The very nature of limitation periods requires a balancing of plaintiff and defendant rights, and the courts engaged with this balance frequently under the pre-modern legislation (that is, the former Limitations Act).  See for example the Supreme Court decision in Peixeiro v. Haberman (1997): “Whatever interest a defendant may have in the universal application of a limitation period must be balanced against the concerns of fairness to the plaintiff who was unaware that his injuries met the conditions precedent to commencing an action”.

 In any event, this balance between plaintiff and defendant rights is normally a matter of the length of a limitation period—allow the plaintiff sufficient time to commence her claim, but not so much time that the defendant will suffer prejudice. Here it seems that the balance means taking some control over the running of time and handing it the defendant.  Perversely, this gives the defendant an incentive to delay the commencement of the claim (in this case, by delaying the application for leave).

It seems Justice Côté understood the perversion, because he dismisses it:

[81]                          Like Goudge J.A in Timminco, I am unwilling to rely upon an isolated purpose of limitation periods, taken out of context, in order to give priority to one stakeholder over others, particularly where the legislature was so clearly alive to these considerations in making the choices it made generally for Part XXIII.1 OSA, and more specifically for s. 138.14.

His solution to potential injustice is a nunc pro tunc order.  An order granting leave to proceed with an action is available nunc pro tunc where leave is sought prior to the expiry of the limitation period.

[85]                          The courts have inherent jurisdiction to issue orders nunc pro tunc. In common parlance, it would simply be said that a court has the power to backdate its orders. This power is implied by rule 59.01 of the Rules of Civil Procedure: “An order is effective from the date on which it is made, unless it provides otherwise”.


[90]                          In fact, beyond cases involving the death of a party or a slip, the courts have identified the following non-exhaustive factors in determining whether to exercise their inherent jurisdiction to grant such an order: (1) the opposing party will not be prejudiced by the order; (2) the order would have been granted had it been sought at the appropriate time, such that the timing of the order is merely an irregularity; (3) the irregularity is not intentional; (4) the order will effectively achieve the relief sought or cure the irregularity; (5) the delay has been caused by an act of the court; and (6) the order would facilitate access to [citations omitted[. None of these factors is determinative.


[93]                          Thus, subject to the equitable factors mentioned above, an order granting leave to proceed with an action can theoretically be made nunc pro tunc where leave is sought prior to the expiry of the limitation period. One very important caveat, identified by Strathy J., is that a court should not exercise its inherent jurisdiction where this would undermine the purpose of the limitation period or the legislation at issue.


[94]                          This is because, as with all common law doctrines and rules, the inherent jurisdiction to grant nunc pro tuncorders is circumscribed by legislative intent. Given the long pedigree of the doctrine and of rule 59.01, to which I have referred, it has been held that the legislature is presumed to have contemplated the possibility of a nunc pro tunc order:McKenna, at para. 27; Parker, at pp. 286-87; New Alger Mines, at pp. 570‑71. However, nunc pro tunc orders will not be available if they are precluded by either the language or the purpose of a statute. None of the other equitable factors listed above, including the delay being caused by an act of the court, can be relied on to effectively circumvent or defeat the express will of the legislature.

The practical reality is that there are very few circumstances in which plaintiff won’t be fully in control of when it commences its action.  Nevertheless, the court’s willingness to depart from this basic, common sense limitations principle on rather dubious grounds is troubling.

You may find the decision helpful for its high-level summaries of the doctrine of special circumstances (paras. 112-113) and the purpose of limitation periods (paras. 57-58).