Sometimes when parties arrive at a settlement, notwithstanding that the settlement may objectively be in their interests, they may not necessarily be pleased with the outcome. If the settlement has been concluded and fully documented, however, a party who has had second thoughts will likely be out of luck if they want to avoid complying with the agreement. This is important because parties should usually be held to the bargains that they make in a settlement.
A settlement does not necessarily have to be in writing to be valid, but like any contract, there must be a “meeting of the minds” on the essential terms of the agreement.
In a recent decision, Daehn v Lalonde, 2021 ONSC 301, the court considered a motion to enforce a settlement where draft minutes of settlement had been exchanged, but not signed. The dispute between the parties underlying the settlement concerned the validity of competing Wills. The parties were engaged in negotiations between January and July 2019, during which time several offers and versions of draft minutes of settlement were exchanged. In mid-July, counsel for the responding parties to the motion advised the moving party that he would no longer be acting for the responding parties, and retracted all offers to settle made by the responding parties.
The moving party took the position that certain conduct by counsel for the responding parties should be taken as akin to acceptance of terms in the minutes of settlement. Such conduct included providing bank statements that had been requested as a condition of settlement, and proposing changes to some terms of the draft minutes without complaint about others. The court did not accept this argument, and did not find acceptance of the agreement by words or conduct of the responding parties.
The court briefly reviewed the law regarding validity and enforcement of settlements. Like a contract, a concluded settlement requires both a mutual intention to create a legally binding contract, and agreement on all essential terms of the settlement.
The court found that the responding parties never agreed to the terms of settlement. Despite the moving party’s argument that the responding parties had agreed to the sole “essential” term, the court found that it cannot be the case that the moving party alone can dictate what terms of the settlement are essential. The court concluded that a settlement cannot be imposed where no agreement was reached.
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The court’s authority to approve settlements of claims that impact the interests of persons under a legal disability, including minors and incapable persons, is well-known. Rule 7.08 of the Rules of Civil Procedure provides that any settlement of claims made by or against a person under disability is not binding unless approved by a judge. Implicit in this Rule is that the court is to ensure that a settlement impacting the rights of individuals who cannot legally consent to such a settlement is, in fact, in the best interests of those individuals.
Rule 7.08(4) lists the court material that must be delivered as part of any such motion for court approval and includes, among other items, an affidavit of the lawyer acting for the litigation guardian of the incapable person “setting out the lawyer’s position” vis-à-vis the proposed settlement. In the recent decision of the Superior Court of Justice in Grier v Grier, the Court grappled with the extent of the lawyer’s obligations in preparing such an affidavit, particularly when questions of privilege are invoked.
In the Grier decision, the parties to the litigation had agreed on terms of settlement. However, as they were both under a legal disability, the parties brought a motion seeking court approval of the settlement not only on their behalf, but also on behalf of two non-parties whose interests were impacted by the settlement. One of the non-parties, S, brought a subsequent motion seeking copies of the materials exchanged by the parties in the litigation generally, as well as on the motion for court approval.
The court denied the former on the basis that the non-party was not entitled to service of any court material exchanged by the parties unless otherwise ordered by the court, as she had not filed a Notice of Appearance. As to the latter, the parties had previously agreed to an order that the two non-parties would be entitled to service of materials relating to settlement. As such, the court found that S was entitled to service of the materials for the motion for court approval.
However, the main issue before the court related to the adequacy of the materials produced. The parties had each served the non-parties with incomplete motion materials, including affidavits of counsel for the litigation guardians which had select sections omitted on the basis of privilege. S, as moving party, sought disclosure of the complete motion materials inclusive of the omissions.
The Court considered the authorities, including the Rivera and Boone decisions, and held that lawyers delivering affidavits pursuant to Rule 7.08(4) ought to be more than capable of doing so without breaching privilege. The lawyer’s obligation in that respect is to simply provide assurance to the court that they advised their client as competent counsel would and that the settlement is in their client’s best interests.
Should counsel go further than is required under the Rule, then as the judge in Boone pithily held, “that is counsel’s problem.” If necessary, alternative relief, such as sealing orders, may be considered, but at first instance, it is clear that the court will expect counsel to be able to draft materials in such a way so as to discharge their obligation without butting up against questions of privilege.
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A recent decision of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench highlights the importance of carefully reviewing settlement agreements prior to their execution.
In Anderson Estate (Re), 2020 ABQB 428, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench revisited a settlement that had been negotiated during a judicial mediation.
Mr. Anderson had left a Last Will and Testament executed roughly one month prior to his death that directed that the residue of his estate be distributed to his three children, who were the parties to the litigation. The Will addressed certain advances made to his children during his lifetime, the disposition of real property, and declared the testator’s intent that the parties be treated equally.
One son, who later brought the motion with respect to the interpretation of the agreement, had previously disclaimed real property gifted to him under the Will because the value assigned to the property in the Will itself was significantly higher than the appraised value of the property (with a discrepancy of $2 million), such that he would take a correspondingly lower distribution from the residue of the estate to reflect his acceptance of the gifted property. The judicial mediation process had been initiated with the intention of resolving interpretation issues in respect of the Will arising from the son’s disclaimer of the property. The terms of the Will and the settlement agreement were not straightforward, but the settlement provided in part that the son would receive at a value of $4 million a different property than that bequeathed to him under the Will that he had disclaimed.
Pursuant to the terms of the settlement agreement, the matter returned to the case management judge for the determination of its proper interpretation. The son sought an interpretation of the agreement that provided that he had substituted his receipt of one property for the other at a notional cost corresponding to advances tied to the first property.
Justice Jones reviewed the law in general relating to ambiguities appearing in contracts, such as the settlement agreement that the parties had executed (at paragraphs 35 through 40, briefly summarized below):
- true legal ambiguity arises where a phrase is reasonably susceptible on its face to more than one meaning;
- courts can consider surrounding circumstances that include everything that affected the language of the document from the perspective of a reasonable person;
- extrinsic evidence, however, is intended to serve “as an objective interpretative aid to determine the meaning of the words the parties used”, with limitations set out by the Alberta Court of Appeal in Hole v Hole, 2016 ABCA 34;
- the goal of the courts is to give effect to the objective intentions of the parties, rather than to “second-guess the contract”;
- even in the absence of ambiguity, a judge is to consider relevant surrounding circumstances in interpreting the contract.
The judge found that the settlement agreement was not susceptible to more than one meaning, stating as follows (at para 84):
A retrospective determination that one entered into an agreement on terms less commercially favourable that one now thinks should have prevailed does not evidence ambiguity.
This decision may serve as a reminder to take care in ensuring that the meaning of a settlement agreement is properly understood by all parties and clearly set out without room for ambiguity. Remaining silent on certain points that should properly be addressed during the dispute resolution process may limit the rights of the parties to pursue them, even where the settlement agreement will otherwise lead to the distribution of an estate that may be perceived as unfair.
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I have previously blogged about the need to have any settlement which affects the interests of a party under a “legal disability”, whether on account of them being a minor or otherwise, to be approved by the court in accordance with rule 7.08 of the Rules of Civil Procedure before the settlement is binding upon the party under a disability. Although rule 7.08 is clear what materials need to be included in any Motion to approve a settlement, with affidavits being required both from the incapable person’s litigation guardian as well as the litigation guardian’s lawyer outlining why they believe the settlement should be approved, what is less clear is the actual procedure by which such a Motion is brought before the court.
There has been some debate recently about whether in Toronto a Motion to approve a settlement should be brought in writing or if they should be brought before a Judge in person. The apparent confusion appears to be caused by what appear to be competing instructions that are contained in the practice direction for the Toronto Region as well as the practice direction for the Estates List, with one appearing to tell you to bring the Motion in writing and the other appearing to tell you to do the opposite.
The general practice direction for the Toronto Region provides the following regarding an approval Motion under rule 7.08:
“A motion under Rule 7.08 must be brought in accordance with the Best Practice’s Guidelines and Checklist for rule 7.08 matters.”
The Best Practice’s Guidelines and Checklist in turn provides:
“Rule 7.08 requires the approval of a judge for any proposed settlement on behalf of a party under a disability. This is done by way of a motion made in writing or if no action has been commenced, then the approval of a judge is obtained by way of an application. In Toronto, Rule 7 motions and applications are to be filed as in-writing motions through the civil intake office, in the motions department.” [emphasis added]
The checklist appears clear that if you are bringing a motion to approve a settlement in Toronto that it is to be done in writing. As a result, if your matter is subject to the general Toronto practice direction, it would appear fairly clear that your approval Motion must be brought in writing.
Although the general Toronto practice direction appears clear that approval Motions are to be brought in writing, many, if not most, estates matters in Toronto are adjudicated on the specialized Estates List. The general Toronto practice direction notes that it does not apply to matters on the Estates List unless it is specifically mentioned, stating:
“This Practice Direction does not apply to motions or applications heard on the Commercial and Bankruptcy Lists, Estates List, or under the Class Proceedings Act, 1992, unless specifically mentioned.” [emphasis added]
There appears to be no reference in the general Toronto practice direction that the “in writing” rule for approval Motions is to apply to matters on the Estates List. As a result, it would appear that such a rule does not apply to matters on the Estates List, and that we are to revert to any direction provided in the Estates List practice direction regarding approval Motions.
The Estates List practice direction provides the following regarding how approval motions are to be brought before the court:
“Where the settlement of a proceeding on the Estates List requires court approval, the motion for approval of the settlement and the application for the appointment of a guardian of property should be brought before a judge on the Estates List.” [emphasis added]
There is no reference in the Estates List practice direction to the approval motion having to be brought in writing, with the practice direction simply stating that it has to be brought “before a judge”. Although a technical reading of such a direction may suggest that a matter could be brought “before a judge” in writing, in the absence of any specific bar to bringing the approval Motion before a Judge in person, and as Judges often have questions about a settlement before granting their approval, it would appear that absent any additional direction from the court that approval motions on the Estates List can (and probably should) still be brought before a Judge in person.
The result of all of this appears to suggest that if you are seeking the approval of a settlement in Toronto and your matter is on the general civil list that you have to bring the approval motion in writing. If you matter is on the Estates List however it would appear likely that you can continue to bring your approval Motions in person before a Judge. Matters in jurisdictions outside of Toronto should consult with your local practice direction for any direction regarding how they may want you to bring any approval Motions.
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At what point does a settlement become final? Is it when the parties agree on all of the terms of the settlement and sign a written agreement, such as minutes of settlement? Or at an earlier time?
In the recent decision of Cox v Baker, 2019 ONSC 2859, the court was asked to make a determination as to whether a binding settlement had been reached. The litigation involved an inter vivos trust (the “Trust”) settled by a mother for the benefit of her two daughters and subsequent generations. After the death of Donna (the second to die of the two daughters), the three living beneficiaries were Donna’s sons, Brett and Brent, and her niece, Marnie. Brett was the sole trustee after Donna’s death.
Prior to her death, Donna was living at a house that was owned by the Trust (the “Property”), with her husband, John. About a year after Donna’s death, in March 2018, John brought an application against Brett, as trustee of the Trust, and against all three of the beneficiaries, personally, seeking, among other things, an interest in the Property by way of resulting and/or constructive trust.
In May 2018, John and Brett ran into each other at Donna’s gravesite. They discussed John’s application, John advised Brett that he would call his lawyer and withdraw his application, and the two shook hands. Thereafter, a number of emails were exchanged between counsel for John, and counsel for Brett, Brent, and Marnie. It appeared that the parties had reached an agreement that John would withdraw his application, without costs, provided that all parties sign a mutual release. However, John subsequently took the position that there was never a binding settlement agreement, as the parties had not agreed on the specific terms of the mutual release. Brett, Brent, and Marnie brought an application to enforce the settlement.
Ultimately, the court concluded that a binding settlement had been reached. Some of the key factors were, in the court’s finding, that there had been a mutual intention between the parties to create a legally binding contract, and that all essential/material terms had been agreed upon. The court also noted that the agreement had been reduced to writing by way of the email exchanges between counsel.
The court specifically considered whether the fact that the parties had not yet agreed on the specific wording of the mutual release was necessary to create a binding settlement. After reviewing the case law, the court concluded that, unless there is some indication that the settlement was conditional on the parties also agreeing on the language for a release, it is not required that the parties agree on the specific terms of such a release before there will be said to be a binding settlement agreement.
The court also commented on the importance of the principle of finality, which demands that settlements entered into with the assistance of legal counsel be upheld, as it is a matter of good public policy to encourage settlement. Settlements of this kind should be upheld other than in exceptional cases, which the present case was not.
This decision is an important reminder that, if the parties have reached an agreement on all essential terms, even if the more minor details have not been agreed upon, and the minutes of settlement and/or release have not been finalized and executed, a binding settlement may still exist. Parties should be aware that once a binding settlement has been reached (which could happen prior to signing minutes of settlement), they cannot simply change their minds. It is important to keep this in mind at all stages of a negotiation, and to be alert as to when it could be said that all essential terms have been agreed upon.
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Today on Hull on Estates, Stuart Clark and Charlotte McGee discuss settlement agreements and non-signatories – specifically, if a settlement agreement affects the interests of a non-signatory to the settlement, can such a settlement bind the interests of the non-signatory?
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Estate litigation can be costly both financially and emotionally. As a result, there is often a strong incentive for parties to try to reach a negotiated settlement. Although entering into a settlement which resolves the estate litigation may appear straightforward from the outside, it may become more complicated if all potential financially interested parties are not signatories to the settlement. It is not uncommon in estate litigation for all beneficiaries of the estate to not actively participate in the litigation, leaving it to people such as the Estate Trustee or the other beneficiaries to defend a claim. As a settlement is in effect a contract between parties, if a settlement is reached which affects the interests of a non-signatory to the settlement can such a settlement bind the interests of the non-signatory?
I have previously blogged about section 48(2) of the Trustee Act, and an Estate Trustee’s ability to settle claims on behalf of the estate which can bind the interests of the beneficiaries. While section 48(2) would allow the Estate Trustee to bind the interests of all beneficiaries to the settlement, the Estate Trustee does so at their own potential liability, as it is possible that one or more of the beneficiaries may later challenge the decision of the Estate Trustee to enter into the settlement, potentially seeking damages against the Estate Trustee if they are of the position that the settlement was not reasonable or in the best interest of the estate. As a result of such a risk, it is not uncommon for an Estate Trustee to be hesitant to enter into a settlement on behalf of the estate in contentious situations, not wanting to potentially expose themselves to personal liability if one or more of the beneficiaries should later object to the terms of the settlement. If an Estate Trustee is hesitant to enter into a settlement on behalf of all beneficiaries, but all actively participating parties are otherwise in agreement with the settlement, is there a way to bind the interests of non-participating parties to the settlement?
The Rules of Civil Procedure provide the court with the ability to “approve” a settlement on behalf of parties who are not signatories under certain limited circumstances. This is done in accordance with rule 7.08 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, which allows the court to approve a settlement on behalf of a party who themselves cannot consent to the settlement on account of being under a legal disability (i.e. a minor). Perhaps importantly however, the court only has the authority under rule 7.08 to “approve” a settlement on behalf of a party under a legal disability, and rule 7.08 is not available in circumstances where the non-signatory is fully capable.
The Rules of Civil Procedure do not otherwise appear to provide any mechanism by which a settlement can be approved on behalf of a party who is not under a legal disability. As a result, if the non-signatory who you are you attempting to bind to the settlement is not under a legal disability, the court likely does not have the authority to “approve” the settlement on their behalf under the Rules of Civil Procedure.
Although the court likely does not have the ability to “approve” a settlement on behalf of an individual who is not under a legal disability in accordance with the Rules of Civil Procedure, this does not necessarily mean that there are no other ways to potentially bind the individual to a settlement. One potential solution may be to seek an Order “in accordance” with the terms of the settlement on notice to all interested parties. Should the court issue such an Order, which in effect repeats the terms of the settlement but as an Order of the court, the non-signatories would arguably then be bound to the terms of the settlement as it would now be in the form of an Order of the court.
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I recently attended a panel discussion with judges of Toronto’s Commercial and Estate Lists, the purpose of which was to explore tips for effective practice and advocacy. A key takeaway from this discussion was that case conferences are a valuable tool in a litigator’s toolbox, particularly when litigation becomes contentious.
Case conferences are governed by Rule 50 of the Rules of Civil Procedure. The purpose of Rule 50 is to promote settlement of some or all of the issues in dispute without a hearing, and to obtain orders or directions to ensure that any necessary hearing is expeditious, orderly, and efficient.
Rule 50.13 dictates that a judge may direct a case conference before a judge or case management master, in either an action or application, on his or her own initiative or at a party’s request. A judge can direct a case conferences at any stage of the litigation. Pursuant to Rule 50.13(5), at a case conference, the judge or case management master may:
- identify the issues, noting those that are contested and those that are not;
- explore methods to resolve the contested issues;
- if possible, secure the parties’ agreement on a specific schedule of events in the proceeding;
- establish a timetable for the proceeding; and
- review and, if necessary, amend an existing timetable.
As discussed by my colleague, Kira Domratchev, in her blog on Rule 49 offers to settle, Ontario is a jurisdiction where parties are encouraged to settle their legal disputes prior to reaching the ultimate hearing of a matter. Case conferences are a valuable tool for parties who are looking to narrow the issues before the court, establish a timetable, or potentially reach a full and final settlement.
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On March 27, 2014, I blogged on the issue of settling litigation, but leaving the issue of costs to the court. I noted the decision of Dhillon v. Dhillon Estate, 2009 CanLII 58607 (ON SC), where the matter was settled on the eve of trial, but the parties left the issue of costs to the court. The court declined to make any award of costs, as the factors to be considered in awarding costs had not been determined by the court.
In the decision of Koster v. Koster, 2018 ONSC 6896 (CanLII) released November 19, 2018, the issue arose again. A motion was brought for summary judgment, but as the court determined that it could not decide the question without a trial, the motion was dismissed. The parties then went to mediation, where the matter was settled, except for the issue of costs. Pursuant to the settlement, the entitlement and quantum of costs was to be determined by the court.
There, the court declined to make any costs award. The court referred to the Dhillon decision.
In refusing to award costs, the court stated:
By definition, a settlement is a compromise between the litigants’ positions. Also by definition, it is agreeable to all the parties. It is impossible to say with accuracy why any particular settlement was acceptable to one or other of the parties. Put another way, an award of costs is typically grounded in findings by the court as to the parties’ respective success and the impact of their actions during litigation, which are findings not made in the event of a settlement.
The court also cited from the decision in Waterloo North Condominium Corporation No. 161 v. Redmond, 2017 ONSC 1304 (CanLII). There too, the court declined to determine liability for costs following a settlement. There, the court stated:
Moreover to embark upon a full examination and adjudication of the merits of the parties’ respective substantive claims and defences for the sole purpose of determining the question of costs, when those substantive issues have been settled by the parties, would run counter to the principle in McLellan that costs are incident to a determination of the rights of the parties and are not to be made themselves the subject matter of the litigation.
As I concluded in my March 2014 blog, settling but leaving the issue of costs to the court should be avoided. Courts will be reluctant to relitigate the entire matter in order to make a determination as to who was right and who was wrong and therefore entitled to or liable for costs.
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According to Rule 49.09 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, a party may bring a motion for judgment in accordance with the terms of an accepted offer and the judge may grant judgment with respect to same or continue the proceeding as if there had been no accepted offer to settle.
In a recent Court of Appeal decision (Hashemi-Sabet Estate v Oak Ridges Pharmasave Inc. 2018 ONCA 839) the Court had to determine whether the motion judge erred in giving judgment in accordance with a Rule 49 offer to settle because said offer was revoked before it was accepted.
The Respondent (the Estate), sued the Appellant for damages for breach of contract, oppression and various other causes of action relating to the opening and operation of a pharmacy.
On June 8, 2015, the Appellant served the Respondent with a written Rule 49 offer to settle the action. In accordance with Rule 49, the offer provided that it would be open until the trial of the action.
In April, 2016, the Appellant retained new counsel, and a Notice of Change of Lawyer was served in accordance with the Rules of Civil Procedure.
On September 20, 2016, the parties attended a pre-trial conference. The Appellant maintains that the June 8, 2015 offer to settle was rescinded orally at the pre-trial conference and that the offer to settle served on September 19, 2016 revoked the June 8, 2015 offer, in any event.
The Respondent on the other hand, maintained that when counsel returned to their office following the pre-trial conference, a written acceptance of the June 8, 2015 offer to settle was sent by fax at 1:27 p.m. on the same day. According to further evidence tendered by the Respondent, opposing counsel’s office called and requested a copy of the June 8, 2015 offer to settle following the pre-trial conference on September 20, 2016 and that a copy was sent to opposing counsel via email at 2:34 p.m. that day (arguably after acceptance of same was sent via fax).
The Respondent acknowledged receipt of the second offer to settle but maintained that it was not served until 5:23 p.m. on September 20, 2016 (hours after the June 8, 2015 offer was accepted).
The Respondent brought a motion for judgment in accordance with the June 8, 2015 offer to settle and the motion judge granted same. The Appellant appealed the decision to the Court of Appeal.
Court of Appeal Decision
The Court agreed with the motion judge. The Court found that the revocation of the June 8, 2015 offer to settle did not comply with Rule 49.02(1) which requires that the revocation be made in writing. As such, the timing of service of the second offer to settle would be determinative of the motion.
The Court held that in determining whether to enforce a Rule 49 offer to settle, a two-step approach is to be undertaken, similar to the pre-Hryniak v Mauldin 2014 Supreme Court of Canada decision Rule 20 summary judgment analysis.
As such, the Court agreed with the motion judge’s analysis in accordance with the above-noted framework was appropriate as follows:
- Whether an agreement to settle had been reached;
- Whether, on all the evidence, the agreement should be enforced.
The Court agreed that the motion judge had to make credibility findings and held that the Respondent’s position was more credible such that the June 8, 2015 was accepted and that judgment in accordance with the said offer should be enforced. In particular, the Court had trouble with the fact that the Appellant had known for over a year that the Respondent took the position that their counsel was not served with the second offer to settle until 5:23 p.m. on September 20, 2016, but did not submit an Affidavit of Service from the process server.
In light of this decision, it is particularly important to be mindful of the particular rules related to Rule 49 offers to settle, both in making an offer to settle and considering to revoke same. Particularly in relation to service of an offer to settle, it may a good idea to serve it in such a manner as to be able to confirm receipt of same by the other side, such as via facsimile. It is important to remember that service via email will not qualify as proper service, particularly if the opposing side maintains the email was never received.
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