When Should an Employer Require an Employee to Obtain ILA?

The recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court in Mottillo v. O.E. Canada Inc. provides a useful reminder of the purpose of independent legal advice (or “ILA”) in the context of a subsequent action that tests the enforceability of a contract.

In this case, the Plaintiff entered into an employment agreement with O.E. Canada Inc. which included, as part of his remuneration, equity and profit sharing provisions.

In addition to an employment agreement, the Plaintiff signed an option agreement and an option amending agreement at his employer’s request.

The Plaintiff’s employment was terminated. The Plaintiff sued for damages for wrongful dismissal as well as damages for oppressive conduct. As part of the claim, the Plaintiff challenged the validity of the option amending agreement on the basis that prior to his signing, it had not been explained to him and he had not been advised to obtain independent legal advice.

The Defendant brought a motion for partial summary judgment, seeking an order declaring the option agreement and the option amending agreement were valid and enforceable.

First addressing the question of whether or not these documents were explained to the Plaintiff, the Court concluded that the Plaintiff did not require them to be explained to him. They were drafted in English which the Plaintiff was able to read and understand. There was no suggestion that the Plaintiff was forced to sign these documents and in fact, his own evidence was that before signing them, the effect of the agreements were explained to him and any questions had been answered by his employer to his satisfaction. In addition, he was not required to sign them immediately. In the case of the option amending agreement, he had the agreement in his possession for almost three weeks before signing it.

The Court found that the Plaintiff was an experienced, business-savvy individual with extensive experience in negotiating contracts. The Court pointed out that there is no duty on a party to explain the provisions of an agreement to the other party where the other party has the opportunity to read the agreement and any potentially offending terms are clearly set out in the document.

In his pleading, the Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant had failed to advise him to obtain ILA. The Court observed that ILA is not a pre-condition to the enforceability of a contract. It simply reduces the risk that a party to a contract will later claim that he or she did not understand its terms and his or her obligations and entitlements. Accordingly, a failure to ensure that a party obtains ILA before signing a contract does not of itself create a defence to the contract’s enforceability.

The situation would be different if the party signing the contract is misled as to its contents, if it contains provisions that one would not ordinarily expect to find in a contract of the nature being discussed, and if the party putting the contract forward knows or should have known that the other party would not actually read the contract. In that type of case, the contract cannot be said to represent the true intention of the person being asked to sign it, and the signing party might very well be able to have the contract invalidated. ILA should remove that possibility.

In that sense, ILA does not simply protect the interests of the party obtaining the independent advice. It actually protects the interests of both sides. Assuming that both sides are acting in good faith, ILA might be unnecessary but it is hard to think of an instance in which it would be inadvisable.

A Mediator’s Pet Peeves – Part III

In my previous blog posts on this subject, I discussed lack of preparedness on the part of counsel and/or client, and the counterproductive use of the opportunity to make an opening statement, as two of my pet peeves as a mediator.

In no particular order, my third pet peeve has to do with unreasonable settlement positions.

At some point in every mediation, and usually fairly early on, a party will be called on to take a formal settlement position by making an offer to settle.  Most of the time in commercial cases, the offer will involve either the payment or the receipt of money.  Invariably, the offer is made in the setting of a private consultation between a party, his or her counsel and me and it is intended that I convey the offer to the opposing side in a separate private consultation.

From time to time, offers are provided to me with the accompanying caution that this is that party’s final position or, alternatively, that while it may not be the final position, there is very little room to move.

Nobody ever believes that.  Mediators don’t believe that, and opposing sides certainly never believe it.  If the party making such an offer is actually telling the truth, then the offer has to be revised in order to leave more room for movement before it is presented to the opposing side.  The nature of the process, and human nature generally, is such that a party receiving an offer will assume that there is room to move and simply will not believe anything to the contrary.

The difficulty that arises, and therefore a pet peeve of mine, is that from time to time a party will make an offer that is so outrageously excessive as to cause a complete loss of credibility.  If the offer is ridiculous, the opposing party will respond in one of a number of ways and none of them enhance the possibility of settlement.  Firstly, the opposing party may conclude that the offeror simply has no reasonable or rational appreciation for the probabilities of the offeror’s chances of success or failure in the action.  An offeror held in such low regard will generally not receive a reasonable counteroffer.  Secondly, the receiving party may conclude that the offeror has no sincere interest in settlement so that the entire process is a complete waste of time and that it might as well conclude on the spot.

Where the receiving party responds with a reasonable offer and the next number put forward by the offeror betrays the fact that the offeror obviously knew that his first number was outrageous, the receiving party will invariably resent the offeror for having wasted everyone’s time.  If the offeror’s response to the counteroffer shows only a slight movement, once again the opposing party may conclude that the entire exercise has little or no chance of success.

The bottom line, of course, is that there is no substitute for the conduct of a thoughtful and reasoned analysis by each party of the likely outcome or ranges of outcomes at trial.  Once that analysis has been conducted, there is certainly no harm in aiming at the high or low end of that range so that a party comes in within shouting distance of a reasonable result, while leaving room to move in the subsequent negotiation.  A party who shoots for the moon will likely end up shooting himself in the foot.

A Mediator’s Pet Peeves – Part II

Recently I published a blog post in which I reflected on lack of preparation on the part of parties and their counsel as a serious impediment to settlement at mediation.

Another serious impediment, and one which frequently arises at the very start of a mediation, involves opening statements.

In the classic mediation scenario, the parties and their counsel will begin the mediation by convening in a meeting room with a mediator. The mediator will begin the session by introducing himself/herself. He/she may ask the others in the room to introduce themselves as well. He/she may make a brief statement about why settlement is a good thing and going to court is a bad thing. And then he/she may ask counsel on each side to make an opening statement, an opportunity which most counsel simply use to reiterate what they’ve already written in their mediation briefs filed in advance of the mediation. The mediator may or may not invite the parties to speak as well.

The extent to which these opening statements will increase the tension in the room and the degree to which each party has demonized the other, on one hand, or contribute positively to the process by increasing the other side’s understanding of the opposing position, on the other hand, will vary from case to case.

Obviously, it is in the interests of all concerned (or at least the attendees who are seriously interested in settling the dispute) to make a positive contribution to the process through the mechanism of an opening statement. An opening statement which makes clear the position of the party delivering it, either personally or through his counsel, will be particularly helpful if the opposing party does not have a full and complete understanding of the opposing position – presumably because he has not been properly prepared (see my earlier blog post on poor or no preparation). Unfortunately, this is not always the case. More often than not, counsel take the opportunity to show their clients how tough they are by making opening statements that are simply inflammatory. In such cases, the mediator is faced with the prospect of dealing with parties who are even angrier with each other than they were before the mediation started.

A few years ago, I conducted a small survey involving a total of ten mediators: six from the United States, three from Canada, and one from Argentina. In the course of the survey I asked the mediators whether or not it was their normal practice to invite opening statements from parties or otherwise invite them to participate in open discussion at the outset of their mediations.

Their responses varied widely. Five mediators indicated either that they never ask for opening statements, or that they would not do so unless counsel specifically requested it. The other five indicated that they always, or almost always request opening statements. One of them made it clear that while his preference was to have opening statements, he would refrain from asking for them if counsel were clear that they would be counterproductive.

There was no apparent correlation between the responses from these mediators and the level of experience or training among them.

It is easy to dismiss the idea of opening statements as a source of information because mediation briefs are filed prior to the session and in theory, parties should be familiar with the position being taken by the other party. Nevertheless, an unprepared party would benefit from hearing an articulation of the opposing position at the outset – assuming that it is expressed in a reasoned and business-like fashion.

My own practice is to contact each counsel prior to every mediation and obtain their input as to whether or not they feel that an opening statement would be helpful. Where opening statements are going to be provided, I do insist that counsel refrain from making statements or adopting a tone that is aggressive or obnoxious. Counsel who do behave that way may feel that they are winning points with their client(s). That may be true. However, if an inflammatory opening statement means that the odds of a successful resolution are diminished, the client’s interests will not have been well served.

Arbitration Dilemma: What if You Do Not Have a Willing Dance Partner?

It has now become commonplace for commercial agreements to include mandatory arbitration clauses. Where a party to such a contract seeks to litigate a dispute under such an agreement, the other party should be able to get the lawsuit dismissed on the basis that the dispute must be arbitrated and cannot be litigated in court.

Typically, arbitration clauses are included in agreements at a time when the parties to the agreement are looking forward to a contractual relationship that is harmonious and cooperative, or at least civil and businesslike. Unfortunately, when a dispute arises so that the arbitration clause becomes relevant, normally the attitude of each party towards the other will be very different.

Unlike judges, arbitrators must be paid by the parties. Unless the arbitration clause in the contract provides otherwise, the arbitrator will require an equal deposit from each party with further deposits to be made as the process evolves. But what if one side refuses to pay its share of the arbitration fees?

The other party’s response in these circumstances may be to pay both shares of the arbitration expenses and proceed with the arbitration in the hope of recovering those expenses at the hearing. The conventional wisdom is that a party refusing to pay its share of the expenses is not going to be permitted to attend the arbitration in any event so the exercise will be a one sided affair, presumably resulting in success for the party that paid the entire fee.

It should be noted that while beyond the scope of this post, there is authority for the proposition that a party refusing to pay its share of the arbitration fee nevertheless has the right to attend at the arbitration and present its position. Obviously that is a controversial point, worth exploring in future posts.

For the moment, however, let’s assume that the party willing to pay its share of the arbitration fee (presumably the party that initiated the arbitration) is either unable or unwilling to pay both shares. What are its options?

As indicated above, courts are reluctant to get involved in disputes involving contracts with mandatory arbitration provisions. However, there is now American authority for the proposition that in circumstances in which the opposing party refuses to pay its share of the fees, the initiating party will have the right to abandon the arbitration process and proceed by way of legal action.

The case is called Roach v. BM Motoring, LLC and was dealt with recently by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

In that case, a series of plaintiffs purchased used cars at different times from a car dealer. Each purchaser signed an agreement that provided for mandatory arbitration and, somewhat unusually, that the defendant car dealer would advance both parties’ arbitration fees, subject to reimbursement by decision of the arbitrator.

In each of these cases, the purchasers filed demands for arbitration because of complaints with their vehicles. The car dealer simply refused to respond, by paying arbitration fees or otherwise. The plaintiffs then joined forces and sued the car dealer in state court. The trial court dismissed the case, ruling that the parties had intended to arbitrate by signing the contract and “should remain faithful to that clause”. The plaintiffs appealed and lost again. To the appeal court, there was enough factual dispute about the proper form for arbitration that the car dealer’s failure to respond to the demand was neither a material breach of the contract nor a waiver of its right to require arbitration.

The plaintiffs appealed again, to the New Jersey Supreme Court. That court reversed the decisions below it. It ruled that just as in the case of other contracts, if a party materially breaches an arbitration agreement, the other party is relieved of its obligations under the agreement to proceed by way of arbitration. In this case, the refusal of the car dealer to pay the arbitration fees as provided for under the contract was considered a material breach; therefore, the plaintiffs were no longer bound to proceed by way of arbitration at all.

This case does not mean that every delay in paying arbitration fees or responding to a demand for arbitration will amount to a material breach of the arbitration agreement or a waiver of the right to enforce it. The Court itself made it clear that whether or not such behaviour constituted a material breach would have to be considered on a case by case basis in the light of the terms of the contract and the conduct of the parties.

One way of avoiding the problem at the very beginning, of course, is to draft the arbitration clause in the contract to provide that any failure by either side to advance its share of the arbitration fees will give the other party the option of pursuing the matter in court. However, even without that provision, there is now authority for the proposition that in an appropriate case, the non-defaulting party will be able to do just that.

A Mediator’s Pet Peeves – Part I

If you are a party to litigation in Toronto, Ottawa or Windsor, you’re going to find that mediation will be required before a matter can proceed to trial. In other Ontario jurisdictions, mediation is available, and usually advisable, but it is not mandatory.

Either way, Ontario litigants are likely to be involved in mediation in some point during the process. A mediation is simply a settlement meeting presided over by a third party neutral who has no decision making power but who has been trained to assist parties to resolve their dispute.

In addition to my litigation practice, I have been working as a mediator for the last two years. As a counsel representing clients at mediations, I had developed my own habits, practices and tendencies. My exposure to the approaches taken by other lawyers was limited to my observations of the lawyers across the table from me at each mediation.

As a mediator, I have been exposed to much more in terms of the way lawyers conduct mediations on behalf of their respective clients. It has become very clear to me that in many cases, parties could achieve better results if they and their lawyers adhered to some specific rules.

In my view, the first rule that must be followed in every case has to do with preparation. There is simply no substitute for proper preparation for a mediation just as there is no substitute for proper preparation for any other type of court proceeding. A lack of preparation on the part of either party is a serious impediment to success, and therefore a major pet peeve for mediators.

Your counsel will prepare a mediation brief on your behalf and send it to the mediator and to opposing counsel. The purpose of the brief is to present your case in the most positive light possible. Normally the brief will include some reference to the legal basis for your claim or defense and may include copies of documents which support your position.

Hopefully your counsel will review a draft of the brief with you before it is submitted, at least for factual accuracy. Whether you see a draft in advance or not, you should definitely make a point of reviewing the brief submitted on your behalf before the mediation.

Even more importantly, you should be reviewing the brief submitted by the opposing side. I am amazed at the number of times parties that show up for a mediation with very little understanding as to the other side’s position. I cannot understand how anyone can formulate a view as to the strengths and weaknesses of one’s own case, and the probabilities of success or failure, without a thorough understanding of the position being taken by the opponent and the basis for it. You do not want to be hearing about the other side’s position, and the evidence that is going to be put forward to justify it, for the first time at the mediation itself.

Finally, and for the same reason, you will want to obtain from your lawyer, before the start of the mediation, a candid assessment of the case and the range of settlement options to be considered. You will want to understand the range of outcomes reasonably available to you at trial, and the probabilities of obtaining results along that spectrum. For example, in a claim for $100, you may be told that that you have a 10% chance of obtaining nothing, a 10% chance of obtaining $100 and an 80% chance of being awarded $50. In such a case, obviously, the most reasonable settlement result would involve a payment to you of $50.

The difficulty is that the defendant may not see it the same way. He or she may feel that he or she has a 70% chance of walking away from the case without paying anything and only a 30% chance of paying you as much as $50. And that, of course, is why we have lawsuits and mediations. The role of the mediator is to try to persuade the parties to agree to a result that bridges that gap.

The likelihood of a mediator being successful in doing so is directly related to each party’s understanding of the differences between the two positions, among other things. That is the essence of the preparation that is required.

Lawsuits and Privacy Legislation – How do they Interact?

As litigators know, the Rules of Civil Procedure provide for what is usually referred to as the “Deemed Undertaking” between parties to a lawsuit not to disclose documents gathered in the course of a lawsuit to parties outside of that lawsuit unless compelled to by law.

This rule does not relate to the obligations of a party to disclose documents to the other party. The Rules specifically require every party to a lawsuit to disclose to the other party the documents in that party’s possession, custody or control that are relevant to the lawsuit.

On a number of occasions, I have requested production of a document from opposing counsel in the context of a lawsuit only to be met with a refusal for two reasons: firstly, because the document is allegedly not relevant, and secondly, because production of the document would cause the producing party to violate the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (“PIPEDA”). PIPEDA is a data privacy legislation governing the manner by which private organizations collect, use and disclose personal information in the course of commercial business. Among other things, it regulates the basis upon which a party can and cannot disclose information that reveals personal information about a third party.

Such an objection gives rise to the broader question as to whether or not PIPEDA is ever available to a party attempting to avoid the disclosure of a document in the course of a lawsuit simply because it contains information about a third party.

The issue was specifically dealt with by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada last year in PIPEDA Case Summary Number 2016-011, resulting in an interesting ruling.

In that case, after a car accident leading to a lawsuit, the insurance company for the Defendant retained a psychiatrist to conduct a psychiatric assessment of the Plaintiff. After that was completed, the Plaintiff requested access to his personal information held by the psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist would only provide a limited amount of information including a redacted copy of his report. The Plaintiff felt that there was additional information to which he was entitled and also that some of the information held by the psychiatrist might not be accurate. Accordingly, he filed a complaint with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and requested a ruling.

The Commissioner ruled that PIPEDA had no application to this situation. PIPEDA applies to the collection of information in the course of a commercial activity. In this case, the collection and use of the Plaintiff’s information by the psychiatrist took place for the purpose of defending a lawsuit and not a commercial activity. While there was commercial activity between the Defendant in the lawsuit and his insurance company, there was no commercial activity between the Plaintiff and the Defendant, and accordingly, none between the Plaintiff and the Defendant’s insurer or its psychiatrist.

Accordingly, it seems that PIPEDA cannot be relied on as a reason to refuse to produce personal information in the context of a lawsuit if the information was collected for a purpose other than commercial activity as between the parties. If such information is not protected by some type of privilege, PIPEDA cannot be relied on to avoid its production.

Can a Lawyer’s Duty to his Client Extend Beyond the Scope of his Retainer?

 

In the recent case of Meehan v. Good, the Ontario Court of Appeal dealt with a situation in which a lawyer was retained to represent a client with respect to the assessment of the accounts of the client’s former lawyer.

The former lawyer had represented the client in the settlement of a personal injury action and had rendered an account which the client wished to challenge by way of assessment.

The client entered into a written retainer agreement with the new lawyer that specified that the new lawyer was being retained to conduct the assessment proceeding. Nowhere in the retainer agreement was there any mention of a duty on the new lawyer to advise the client about a possible negligence action against the former lawyer, or any limitations issue in that connection (i.e., any time limit on the bringing of a negligence action against the former lawyer).

In this case, it would appear that the client may have had a valid claim of negligence against the former lawyer but that the claim was not brought in time. The client sued the new lawyer alleging that the new lawyer had been negligent in failing to warn him about the time limit. The new lawyer moved for summary judgment to dismiss the claim on the basis that he owed no duty of care to the client to discuss that point since the scope of his obligations to the client were limited by the wording in the written retainer. The motions judge agreed with the new lawyer and dismissed the claim. The client appealed to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal noted that the new lawyer had advised the client on a number of occasions to obtain legal advice elsewhere regarding any issue of negligence. The client acknowledged having received that advice.

The motions judge had determined that it would not be necessary to make any findings as to whether or not the new lawyer had, in fact, advised the client about the limitation period in relation to a possible negligence claim.

The Court of Appeal had a different view of the matter. It pointed out that to determine whether a lawyer owes a duty of care to a client, a court has to examine all of the surrounding circumstances defining the relationship between the lawyer and the client including, but not limited to, the scope of a written retainer. Where the client alleges that the lawyer’s duty extends beyond the retainer, the court has to meticulously examine all of the surrounding circumstances including the nature of the instructions, and the sophistication of the client, to determine whether a duty is owed beyond the four corners of the retainer agreement.

In this case, the motions judge did not do this. The motions judge focused narrowly on the written retainer in order to determine that no duty was owed. The motions judge did not take into account the fact that over the course of the retainer, the new lawyer communicated his views about the former lawyer’s competence, the new lawyer advised the client to raise the issue of negligence in the course of the assessment proceeding itself, and the new lawyer specifically suggested that the client obtain advice from other counsel as to a potential negligence claim. In the view of the Court of Appeal, those facts should have been taken into account in the analysis as to whether or not it might be said that the new lawyer also had a duty to point the limitations issue out to the client.

Having failed to consider that issue, the motions judge erred. The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and ordered that the matter proceed to trial.

Both lawyers and clients often assume, mistakenly, that the scope of the lawyer’s duties and obligations to the client is defined by the strict terms of a written retainer agreement. This case is a useful reminder of the fact that this is not so. It is entirely possible that in the course of a professional relationship, a lawyer may take on responsibilities to his or her client, intentionally or not, that go beyond the strict terms of a written retainer agreement. In such cases, if any such additional duty or responsibility is not fulfilled, the client may well have a right of recovery.