Posts Tagged ‘Interpretation of Contracts’

Herb Silber, Q.C.
Wednesday, October 8th, 2014    Posted by Herb Silber, Q.C. (posts)
Herb Silber, Q.C.
Herb Silber, QC brings a strong combination of experience, knowledge and empathy to the arbitration process as Arbitrator or Counsel. Herb’s approach creates the positive, respectful atmosphere critical to a successful arbitration process.

Sattva Capital Corp v. Creston Moly Corp, 2014 SCC 53 (Sattva)

In the past I have posed the question as to whether Arbitration can be more cost effective and efficient than a court process. The recent Supreme Court of Canada decision, Sattva, provides a complete compendium on the right to appeal a decision of an arbitrator. The upshot of that case is to clarify (if it had been required) that the right to appeal an arbitrator’s decision, particularly when the subject matter of the arbitration is the interpretation of a contract, is very limited- even more so than an appeal from a decision of an inferior court. The result is that it presents another benefit to the insertion of an arbitration clause in an agreement for those parties who wish to ensure that, in the event of a dispute, the outcome of a decision by the arbitrator is likely to be final, thus limiting the cost and enhancing the efficiency of this alternative dispute mechanism. Sattva represents the latest pronouncement of the Supreme Court of Canada’s philosophical adherence to providing parties access to justice by limiting the ability to appeal an arbitrator’s decision, thus ensuring that the more financially robust party will not be able to “tilt the playing field.”

Briefly, the facts in Sattva involved a contractual dispute over a finder’s fee that Sattva alleged was owing to it. In particular, under their contract, Sattva was to be paid a fee of US $1.5 million in shares. The issue that the arbitrator was asked to consider was the date the shares were to be valued. Nine million shares hung in the balance based on the alternative dates each of the parties contended for.

The Court first dealt with principles of contract interpretation and concluded that as most contracts involved a consideration of mixed fact and the law, the right to appeal under S. 31 of the Arbitration Act, SBC 2004, which is limited to questions of law, would rarely be able to be resorted to. The result of this is that in arbitrations involving an interpretation of a contract, which is most often the case, the arbitrator’s decision is likely to be final.

 

Additionally, the Court weighed in on the test to be applied by a court reviewing an arbitral decision, if it has the jurisdiction to do so. The Court’s approach was to re-iterate the importance it places on giving great latitude or deference to the arbitrator in his decision making process. This stems from recognition of the importance of maintaining the integrity of the arbitral process. As the Court noted at paragraph 89 of Sattva, arbitration often is chosen “…to obtain a fast and final resolution…” Later at paragraph 105, the Court observed that “… it may be presumed that [because the parties choose their decision maker] such decision makers are either chosen based upon their expertise in their area which is the subject matter of the dispute or are otherwise qualified in a manner acceptable to the parties.” For these reasons, the Court identified that the test for overturning an arbitral decision should be akin to that of overturning a decision by an administrative tribunal-reasonableness. This presents a high bar to overturn an arbitral decision.

The Sattva case represents, in my opinion, a high water mark in the promotion of an efficient and cost effective process that the parties can look to if they choose to have any disputes that may arise in their commercial relationship governed by arbitration.

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Posted by Herb Silber, Q.C. (posts) | Filed under Litigation and ADR | ....
Shafik Bhalloo
Tuesday, August 6th, 2013    Posted by Shafik Bhalloo (posts)
Shafik Bhalloo
Shafik Bhalloo has been a partner of Kornfeld LLP since 2000. His practice is focused on labour and employment law, and on commercial and civil litigation. He is also an Adjudicator on the Employment Standards Tribunal and an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Business Administration at Simon Fraser University.

Limiting Common Law Notice in Employment Contracts

By Shafik Bhalloo and Devin Lucas

It is settled law in Canada that an employer may displace an employee’s right under the common law to reasonable notice of termination by contracting to a lesser notice or severance entitlement. However, the notice or severance period must meet the statutory notice requirements outlined in the applicable provincial employment standards legislation; otherwise it will be of no effect. In British Columbia for instance, Section 4 of the Employment Standards Act provides that the requirements of the Act are minimum requirements and any agreement to waive those requirements has no effect In Machtinger v. HOJ Industries Ltd.[1], where the employer had contracted to give its employees notice or severance below the minimum provided in the Ontario Employment Standards Act, the Supreme Court of Canada declared the provision null and void for all purposes and held that the provision could not be used to interpret the parties’ intentions with respect to notice entitlement upon termination. The Court then went on to conclude that the employees were entitled to reasonable notice because the presumption of reasonable notice was not rebutted. In so concluding, the Court reasoned that such a conclusion was consistent with the legislative intent of the Act which expressly preserved the civil remedies otherwise available to an employee against his or her employer and provided employers an incentive to comply with the minimum statutory provisions of the Act. Not only must the notice provision comply with the minimum applicable employment standards legislation, it must be drafted carefully if the employer is to successfully limit the common law notice. In British Columbia, in McLennan v. Apollo Forest Products Ltd.[2], the province’s Supreme Court considered a wrongful dismissal action brought by Marvin McLennan, a former “bin chaser” at a sawmill.  Part of Mr. McLennan’s employment contract was contained in an employee handbook.  The handbook contained the following termination provision:

The terms and conditions of employment at Apollo Forest Products Ltd. are in accordance with the Employment Standards Act and other legislation of the Province of British Columbia governing the Employer/Employee relationship in the workplace.

Upon being dismissed, Mr. McLennan brought a wrongful dismissal action against his employer arguing that he was entitled to common law severance pay.  In response, the employer argued that the two weeks’ pay that was provided as severance pay pursuant to the Employment Standards Act[3] was adequate.  The B.C. Supreme Court held that the express provisions of the contract did not restrict the notice to the minimum set out in the Employment Standards Act; therefore, making it necessary and appropriate for the Court to determine the reasonable notice period to which the employee was entitled at common law.

McLennan provides support for the proposition that an employment contract, which incorporates provisions of employment standards legislation by reference, will not be sufficient to provide the clarity of intention required to rebut the presumption that reasonable notice in accordance with the common law applies.  In order to do so, the contract would have to go further and clearly limit the reasonable notice period to the applicable statutory legislation.

Recommendations for Employers

It is recommended that employers, when attempting to limit common law notice or severance, do not violate the minimum provincial employment standards legislation. Where the employer is trying to limit the notice to the minimum in the employment standards legislation, it is recommended that the employer draft the limiting clause in very clear and unambiguous terms limiting to such statutory notice or payment in lieu of notice.


[1] [1992] 1 S.C.R. 986

[2] 1993 CarswellBC 1250.

[3] R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 113.

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Posted by Shafik Bhalloo (posts) | Filed under Labour & Employment | ....
Shafik Bhalloo
Monday, August 22nd, 2011    Posted by Shafik Bhalloo (posts) and Gareth Carline (posts)
Shafik Bhalloo
Shafik Bhalloo has been a partner of Kornfeld LLP since 2000. His practice is focused on labour and employment law, and on commercial and civil litigation. He is also an Adjudicator on the Employment Standards Tribunal and an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Business Administration at Simon Fraser University.

The importance of careful and accurate drafting of business contracts cannot be stressed enough.  However, as careful as a party may be in drafting the contract and as clear as the contractual terms may appear to the parties at the time they are signing the contract, at some point during the operation of the contract, there may arise a dispute between the parties as to the meaning of an ambiguous term in the contract-a term that is open to more than one meaning.  What is the court to do in such case?

The British Columbia Court of Appeal, in a quartet of cases – Grace Residences Ltd. v. Whitewater Concrete Ltd.[1]; Group Eight Investments Ltd. v. Taddei[2], Chuddy v. Merchant Law Group[3], and Gilchrist v. Western Star Trucks Inc.[4]– has delineated instructive principles of contractual interpretation.  These principles may be summarized as follows:

1.     The words of the agreement are the starting point and the most significant tool for interpretation.[5]

2.     The Court must interpret the words objectively, referring to the plain and ordinary meaning, unless it would lead to an absurdity.[6]

3.     The proper “plain and ordinary” meaning must take into consideration the contract as a whole, the intention of the parties expressed within the contract, and the circumstances at the time the contract was entered into[7];

4.     The Court’s will assume that each particular word was selected for a purpose and may reject an interpretation that renders a provision ineffective[8].

5.     Only if the plain and ordinary meaning of the words still results in an ambiguity such that there remain two plausible interpretations, the Court may consider extrinsic evidence regarding the intention of the parties[9].

6.     If extrinsic evidence is relied upon, the Court should interpret the words in a manner consistent with sound commercial principles and good business sense and avoid any commercially absurd meaning[10].

Following these guidelines will assist in avoiding pitfalls when drafting and, if a dispute does arise, in understanding how a Court may decide.


[1] 2009 BCCA 144

[2] 2005 BCCA 489, 57 B.C.L.R. (4th) 278

[3] 2008 BCCA 484, 300 D.L.R. (4th) 56

[4] 2000 BCCA 70

[5] Gilchrist, supra, paragraph 17

[6] Grace Residences Ltd, supra, paragraph 23-25, Group of Eight Investments Ltd., supra, paragraph 20

[7] Chuddy, supra, paragraph 207, Grace Residences Ltd., supra, paragraph 23-25

[8] Grace Residences Ltd, supra, paragraph 23-25, Group of Eight Investments Ltd., supra, paragraph 20

[9] Chuddy, supra, paragraph 207

[10] Chuddy, supra, paragraph 207, Group of Eight Investments Ltd., supra, paragraph 21

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Posted by Shafik Bhalloo (posts) and Gareth Carline (posts) | Filed under Other | ....
Jordan Langlois
Tuesday, February 1st, 2011    Posted by Jordan Langlois (posts)
Jordan Langlois
Jordan joined Kornfeld LLP as an associate in June 2011, after completing his articles with the firm. His practice covers the areas of general corporate commercial law with an emphasis on mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, corporate governance and financing, as well as banking and insolvency law, particularly acting for lenders in foreclosure and bankruptcy matters.

Zeubear Investments Ltd. v. Magi Seal Corporation 2010 ONCA 825 (December 7, 2010), a decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal, is a reminder to pay close attention to the potentially different interpretations in  “shotgun clauses”.

Shotgun clauses are generally inserted in shareholders’ agreements as an exit provision.  One party offers to purchase the shares of the other shareholders at the offered price per share and the others then have the option to either sell their shares or purchase the offering party’s shares at the specified price. 

These buy-sell provisions in shareholders’ agreements are often useful tools to aid in the resolution of disputes among shareholders.      

In Zeubear, the case turned on whether the purchase price was payable entirely in cash upon closing.

The “Harris Group”, owners of 60% of the shares in the subject corporations, triggered the buy-sell provisions of the shareholders’ agreements by providing notice to Geddes, the owner of 40% of the shares, offering to purchase Geddes’ shares for a certain price, payable in full on completion of the sale.

The notice also provided that if Geddes opted to purchase Harris Group’s shares instead, Geddes would have to pay the entire price for Harris Group’s shares on closing.

The shotgun clauses in question parallel the terms of a typical buy-sell offer:

Minimum Terms.  Notwithstanding any other provision hereof …  the Terms shall be deemed to provide, inter alia, that :

…(c)  payment of the Purchase Price for all of the Shares to be purchased pursuant to this section shall be made by delivering on completion:

(i)  at least 50.0% of the Purchase Price in cash or by certified cheque or bank draft; and

(ii)  a promissory note for the balance of the Purchase Price …

After receiving the notice, Geddes purported to accept the offer to purchase Harris Group’s shares but the acceptance provided that the purchase price would be payable as to 50% of the purchase price upon closing and the remainder by delivery of a promissory note.

The decision turned on whether the provisions of the shotgun clause set out minimum payment terms for the buy-sell offer, or instead set out the actual terms to form part of the offer.

The Court of Appeal, in deciding that the latter interpretation was the correct one, focused on the wording of the clauses, which stipulated that “the Terms [of any offer] shall be deemed to provide …”.  Consequently, the relevant clauses in the shareholders’ agreements provided specific terms which were required to form part of any buy-sell offers.

Geddes therefore had the option of accepting Harris Group’s offer to sell upon the payment provisions set out in the relevant clauses in the shareholders’ agreements.  Harris Group’s offers were deemed to include the payment terms set out in the relevant provision and Geddes’ acceptance was valid.

Given that the relevant clauses were titled “minimum terms” and the payment provisions required that “at least” 50% of the purchase price be paid upon closing, it may very well have been the intention of the drafter (and perhaps at least some of the parties) that the payment provisions establish a minimum cash threshold for any buy-sell offer, rather than express terms for each offer.  This was likely a very surprising outcome to Harris Group, given its notice to buy at 100% cash.

It is critical for parties to shotgun clauses in shareholders’ agreements to consider carefully the language used to reflect their intentions.  Otherwise, at the end of the day one party may be left in a very different position than it had intended.

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