Termination Problems: when can you walk away from a contract?

AUTHORED BY: Leah McDaniel and Ryan Krushelnitzky

Construction projects don’t always go as planned. Delays, add-ons, and changes to plans are common. Parties can sue when losses occur. When this happens, the contract itself is the key guide to the parties’ obligations.

However, sometimes things go very wrong. There are times when matters go so far sideways that one of the  parties wants to bring the contract to an early end.  For example, by taking the position that the other side has “repudiated” the agreement and treating the contract as if it is at an end.

An Example – Fundamental Breach & Repudiation in the Construction Context

The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench applied the principles of repudiation in the construction context in the recent decision of RPM Investment Corp v Lange, 2017 ABQB 305.  This was a case involving a construction agreement for a new home.

While the relationship between the Owners and Contractor started off smoothly, frustrations soon developed. Among other things, the Contractor accused the Owners of seriously delaying making design decisions, resulting in construction difficulties. The Owners complained that the Contractor wasn’t doing the work based on their specifications.

Matters came to a head when the Owners sent an email to the Contractor stating that they were “giving notice of our intent to terminate effective November 8, 2010” saying that they believed that the Contractor had abandoned the contract and committed a fundamental breach.

The Contractor didn’t agree, but decided to treat this email as a repudiation and walked away from the contract. The Owner subsequently hired another builder to finish the job.

The Contractor then sued the Owner for its damages resulting from the repudiation. The Owners countersued, claiming the Contractor had abandoned the job and done substandard work.

The Decision – Who walked away first?

After assessing the evidence, the Court sided with the Contractor. While  parts of the work did not meet the Owners’ expectations, they were not so serious as to amount to a “fundamental” breach.  Further, the Court found that the Contractor did not abandon the project.

The result in this case came down to repudiation. The Court held that the Owners’ termination email repudiated the contract, by effectively indicating that the Owners no longer intended to be bound by it. This gave the Contractor the option to accept the repudiation, or reject it. The Contractor elected to accept the repudiation, and communicated this clearly within a reasonable time.

The Contractor was thus able to sue for damages resulting from the repudiation.

What does this mean for you?

Issues involving fundamental breach and repudiation are difficult – once you choose a position, it may be difficult to come back from it. Parties considering taking drastic steps should consider their options clearly before doing so.

The RPM Investment Corp case provides a cautionary tale – the Owners’ said that they didn’t mean to repudiate the contract, but the Court found that they had. This meant that their ability to sue the Contractor was limited to anything that happened before the repudiation. The Owners were also responsible for the costs of a new builder to finish the job, plus any damages that the Contractor suffered due to the early end of the contract.

If you think you may need to walk away from a contract, or you think that someone you hired may be abandoning their obligations, contact Ryan Krushelnitzky, lawyer and Partner with Field Law, to discuss your options.

Unilaterally amending payment terms by conduct alone…Nice try!

By: Catriona Otto-Johnston and Rob Watson

As a contractor, you might find yourself in a situation where the method for calculating payment originally agreed to in the contract becomes unworkable with the actual project scope or existing work-site conditions. Perhaps it would be beneficial to you if the contract contained different payment terms. While a contract can be changed through verbal or written agreement between the parties, can a party, by its actions alone, agree to revise payment provisions unilaterally imposed by another?

This issue was dealt with in Whissell Contracting Ltd v Calgary (City), 2017 ABQB 644. Whissell entered into a subcontract with SNC-Lavalin Graham Joint Venture (“SNC”) to perform certain work for the City of Calgary. The subcontract provided that payment would be calculated on a unit rate basis. Instead, Whissell began invoicing SNC on a force account basis claiming that soon after beginning work on the project, the scope of work and site conditions changed greatly from those anticipated at the time of its bid.  A number of force account sheets were signed by SNC field staff. SNC refused to pay Whissell based on Whissell’s force account rates, and Whissell applied for summary judgment. The Court dismissed Whissell’s application, taking issue with the fact that the wording on the force account sheets was never discussed with anyone at SNC who was involved in negotiating the original subcontract. The Court also noted that without additional evidence, change orders issued by SNC reflecting an increase in the value of the subcontract did not operate to amend the subcontract.

How does this decision affect you?

The lesson to be learned is that the Court isn’t likely to look kindly on contractors unilaterally taking matters into their own hands when trying to unilaterally change the payment terms of the contract. Clear communication, particularly with those involved in the initial contract negotiation, may save you from an uncertain contractual relationship and costly litigation.

If you are negotiating a contract, are in the process of attempting to revise the terms of a contract, or are involved in a dispute over a contract, Field Law can help. For more information, contact Catriona Otto-Johnston, lawyer and Partner with Field Law, or Robert Watson, lawyer and Associate at Field Law, to discuss your options.

A different kind of joint problem

Parents who intend to transfer their assets into joint names with some or all of their adult children need to carefully consider that decision before implementing the transfers.  A series of recent Court cases in Western Canada highlight the need for careful legal advice when parents are considering such transfers in the context of estate planning or family business operations.

In Canada, ownership of property as a joint tenant carries with it the right of survivorship. In simple terms, it means that the joint owner who survives the longest stands to inherit the entire asset.  However, in 2007 the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed a general rule that when parents transfer property into joint names with adult, independent children without receiving any consideration in return, the law presumes that on the parent’s death, the child holds the property on a resulting trust for the parent’s estate.  If the surviving child (who stands to inherit the whole property by right of survivorship) can show that the parent’s intention at the time of the transfer was actually to gift the property to that child, then they can overcome the presumption.  If the child is unable to rebut the presumption, he or she would have to distribute it in accordance with the parent’s will or the applicable intestacy rules.

While there are some useful reasons why a parent may want to hold property with an adult child in such a manner, there are a number of potential pitfalls and problems, which the cases below illustrate:

  1. Coates v Coates, 2017 SKQB 303: a mother placed a series of properties in joint names with her four children as part of the family’s estate plan. One of the children was financially irresponsible and had a judgment against him for various debts.  The creditors registered the judgment against title to the family property, which was ultimately sold to pay out the son’s judgment.  Seeing the potential for similar actions in the future, the mother asked the children to transfer the properties back to her name alone.  All but the financially irresponsible child agreed, and the mother was forced to sue him on the basis that he held the property on resulting trust for her.The Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench confirmed that in that province, the Land Titles Act had abolished the presumption of resulting trust.  However, the mother had sufficient documentary evidence to prove that she had not intended to immediately gift the property to her children when she placed their names on title.  Rather, the intention was for them to inherit the beneficial title to the property only upon her death.

    In this case, there was sufficient and detailed written evidence of the mother’s estate plans in the form of a will and a testamentary agreement with her children.  In most cases we see, that is not the case, and the Court and the parties are left to piece together various bits of circumstantial evidence to determine the transferor’s intention.

  2. Heebner v Heebner, 2017 SKQB 343: this case also concerned parents who were suing their son after they transferred title to a number of properties into joint names with him as part of an estate plan. The parents brought a summary judgment application to direct the transfer of the lands back into their names.  The Court ruled there was insufficient evidence to grant the judgment at this stage, but made a number of procedural orders and directed that the matter return for a hearing after further evidence was adduced.
  3. Kyle Estate v Kyle, 2017 BCCA 329: this was a dispute between siblings about the proceeds of a bank account placed into joint names by their deceased father and one of the children, C. The trial judge found that the presumption of resulting trust applied and that C’s evidence was insufficient to rebut it.  The judge concluded that it was the father’s intention to provide C with funds which would be shared equally to all four children upon his death.On appeal, the court reviewed the principles set out in the Pecore case and did not find a reviewable error.  The Court of Appeal found that it was open to the judge to draw the conclusions he did based on the evidence at trial and confirmed that the funds in the joint bank account were held on resulting trust for the father’s estate.
  4. Finally, in Alberta, the Court of Queen’s Bench just released a decision in Pohl v Midtal, 2017 ABQB 711, yet another illustration of the dangers of transferring property to children as joint owners. The case was initially litigated years ago, and in 2014 the Court found that the daughter had rebutted the presumption of resulting trust and had established the parents’ intention to gift the right of survivorship. The parents then tried to sever the joint tenancy under the procedure set out in the Land Titles Act.The Court concluded that the when the parents had transferred the property, they had irrevocably gifted the right of survivorship to their daughter.  That meant they had given up their ability to now try and sever the joint tenancy.

    While the Court limited the decision to the facts of this case, it is an important reminder that at the end of the day, the evidence will determine the result.  Had the parents in this case obtained proper legal advice, they may have been able to document their intentions more clearly (like in the Coates case above) to avoid the finding of an irrevocable intention to gift.

If you are a parent contemplating transferring your property into joint names with some or all of your children, or the adult child who will be receiving the property, we would be happy to begin the discussion about the potential consequences of the transfer.

Thank you for reading and have a great weekend!