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CHANGING COST TRENDS IN CLASS ACTIONS

Introduction

In 2013, Justice Belobaba released five decisions that addressed legal principles relating to awards of costs on class action certification motions. These cases sent a clear message to the class action bar: “[a]ccess to justice, even in the very area that was specifically designed to achieve this goal, is becoming too expensive.”[1] Justice Belobaba observed that, in some cases, overzealous counsel may be partially responsible for this trend. Using similar reasoning and language in Rosen v BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc., [2] Crisante v DePuy Orthopaedics,[3] Dugal v Manulife Financial, [4] Brown v Canada (Attorney General), [5] and Sankar v Bell Mobility Inc., [6] (collectively called the “Pentalogy”) Justice Belobaba recommended changes to the prevailing approach to cost awards on certification motions that, if followed, would turn Ontario into a “no cost regime”.

Background

In 1982, the Province of Ontario sought recommendations from various legal organizations to consolidate all procedural and substantive matters relating to class actions into a single statute, which led to the enactment of the Class Proceedings Act, 1992 (the “CPA”). [7]

One of the recommendations that the provincial legislature received was from the Ontario Law Reform Commission (the “OLRC”, now the Law Commission of Ontario). The OLRC identified three major goals of a class action regime: judicial efficiency; increased access to courts; and behaviour modification. In order to achieve these objectives, the OLRC recommended enactment of class action legislation with a “no-costs” regime as a general rule, whereby costs would not be awarded to any party in a class action at any stage of the proceedings, including an appeal, in order to meet the goals of judicial efficiency and increased access to justice. [8]

Justice Belobaba had these objectives in mind when he wrote his decisions in the Pentalogy. Justice Belobaba wrote that over the years he had spoken to many members of the class actions bar, and had come to appreciate and endorse the implementation of a “no-costs” regime that had been supported by the OLRC. His Honour’s reasons in Rosen included the following mea culpa:

I also wish that the recommendations on costs as set out in the Ontario Law Reform Commission’s Report on Class Actions had been accepted. Instead, the provincial legislature decided to adopt the views of the Attorney-General’s Advisory Committee and continue the “costs follow the event” convention for the very different world of class actions as well. I was a member of that Advisory Committee. I now realize that I was wrong and that the OLRC was right. I understand that the provincial Law Commission is undertaking a review of the Class Proceedings Act, including the costs provisions. Hopefully, our mistake will be corrected. [9]

Analysis

Justice Belobaba provided the court with statistics and directions that the judges should follow as part of the determination of costs on class certification motions. The starting point of Justice Belobaba’s analysis was Rule 57.01 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, which lists various factors that the court may consider in exercising its discretion to award costs. According to Justice Belobaba, the biggest limitations in the current jurisprudence on costs are the absence of reliable metrics and unclear analysis of the principles relied upon by the court while awarding costs. In order to create a clear and complete regime for awarding costs on such motions, Justice Belobaba:

1. Identified factors that the court should consider while deciding a costs award for a certification motion; and

2. Performed an analytical review of costs awards for certification motions over the past six years and developed a chart with various costs ranges for specific certification motions. [10]

In laying down his directions, Justice Belobaba recognized that a certification motion is one of the most important steps in any class action litigation and it requires a lot of preparation. Therefore, inevitably, the cost awards are higher in certification motions than in most other motions. Nonetheless, the costs must be reasonable. In order to determine whether costs are reasonable, Justice Belobaba suggested that the courts should take into account the amount of costs that an unsuccessful party could reasonably expect to pay and also undertake a comparative analysis of costs awarded in closely comparable cases. Above all, the courts should keep in mind that a fundamental objective of the CPA is to provide enhanced access to justice. [11]

In order to ensure that access to justice is achieved, Justice Belobaba also suggested that courts should rely less on the costs outlines submitted by counsel. Justice Belobaba indicated that he would accept cost outlines, but would not ask the lawyers to submit their actual dockets. After ensuring that the cost outlines are not unreasonable, he stated that he would do a comparative historical review of costs in order to make the process more transparent. Justice Belobaba collected data from the cost awards rendered in the past six years and stated that:

a. For the plaintiff’s side, on average, if the costs award sought was less than $500,000 then the amount awarded would be 63% of the costs sought. However, if the costs sought were more than $500,000, then the costs awarded would be 62% of the costs sought.

b. For the defendant’s side, on average, if the costs award sought was less than $500,000 then the costs awarded would be 50% of the costs sought. However, if the costs sought were more than 500,000, then the costs awarded would be 39% of the costs sought. [12]

Applying the principles and the analysis of past costs awards described above, Justice Belobaba assessed costs sought in each of the cases in the Pentalogy. Justice Belobaba reviewed each case to determine whether the lawyers charged their time at rates consistent with the suggested hourly rates [13] or if they sought excessive costs. Justice Belobaba then compared the costs being sought with similar cases and reviewed each of the cases in the light of his chart of prior costs awards. Above all, in each of the decisions, he sought to ensure that the costs awarded were fair and reasonable and satisfied the objectives of the CPA. [14]

Conclusion

Whether Justice Belobaba’s suggestions and directions usher in a no cost regime remains to be seen. A decision of Justice Perell released soon after the Pentalogy signals that the courts may be adopting a more conservative approach towards awarding costs. [15] In Drywall Acoustic, Justice Perell echoed the concerns raised by Justice Belobaba and stated:

{16} While I would not express the point the same way as do the Plaintiffs, the Plaintiffs make a pertinent point in their observation that the costs in class proceedings raise access to justice concerns for plaintiffs. I agree, but I would add that access to justice is an entitlement of defendants just as much as it is for plaintiffs and the spiralling costs in class proceedings have become a threat to the viability of the class action regime […]

{18} The assessment of costs (and of lawyer’s fees) must adapt to a changing and evolving class action regime and every case requires individual treatment. [16]

By tightening the costs strings, courts potentially reduce the risk for plaintiffs in class actions to bring forward their claims and for plaintiffs’ counsel to pursue these claims. Further, a more restrictive approach to cost awards for certification motions may also make investing in plaintiffs’ class action litigation more attractive to third party investors and funders. However, some members of the plaintiffs’ class action bar have argued that by reducing costs awards, access to justice may actually be further reduced. [17] Some plaintiffs’ counsel have also suggested that, in fact, plaintiffs’ counsel principally bear the costs of class action litigation, and Justice Belobaba’s costs regime could result in plaintiffs’ counsel making a much greater investment in time and disbursements on certification motions than they could ever recover from the defendants. [18] Therefore, a more restrictive approach to awards of costs may increase the risk borne by plaintiffs’ counsel and force them to be more cautious before accepting the professional obligations associated with representation of the representative plaintiff in a class action.

On the other hand, in Justice Belobaba’s analysis of past costs awards, there is a greater disparity between the costs sought and those awarded to a successful defendant on a certification motion than between amounts sought and awarded to a successful plaintiff. For the defendants who are forced to litigate a class claim, which has yet to be tested on its merits, the prospect of a reduced recovery of costs would increase the financial risks that defendants’ lawyers or third party investors have to bear. Further, the risk of high costs awards have always acted as a reminder to plaintiffs of the penalty they may face for bringing an unmeritorious action. Therefore, reducing costs consequences could leave defendants more vulnerable to unmeritorious law suits, and possibly hold them hostage to legal proceedings without the plaintiffs risking significant financial consequences if they are unsuccessful.

How the costs regime for certification motions develops, and whether Justice Belobaba’s Pentalogy will affect the checks and balances for parties in class action litigation, can only be ascertained once other judges have had the opportunity to consider and apply, or choose not to apply, the principles laid down in the Pentalogy. However, Justice Belobaba’s Pentalogy has certainly succeeded in bringing back attention to one of the core objectives of class actions: providing access to justice at reasonable cost.

 

[1] Rosen v. BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc., 2013 ONSC 6356 [Rosen] at para 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Crisante v. DePuy Orthopaedics, 2013 ONSC 6351 [Crisante].

[4] Dugal v. Manulife Financial, 2013 ONSC 6354 [Dugal].

[5] Brown v. Canada (Attorney General), 2013 ONSC 6887 [Brown].

[6] Sankar v. Bell Mobility Inc., 2013 ONSC 6886 [Sankar].

[7] Class Action Proceedings Act, S.O. 1992, CHAPTER 6

[8] Ontario Law Reform Commission, Report on Class Actions, Ministry of the Attorney General Volume 1, 1982.

The OLRC recommendations stated:

s. 2(1) party and party costs should not be awarded to a party at the certification hearing or at the common questions stage of a class action, except

(a) at the certification hearing, where it would be unjust to deprive the successful party of costs, or

(b) in the event of vexatious, frivolous, or abusive conduct on the part of any party” Nonetheless, the legislature did not adopt the OLRC’s recommendations in this regard.

[9]Rosen, Supra note i at para. 2.

[10] Rosen, Supra note 1 at paras. 4-5.

[11] Ibid. at para 4.

[12] Ibid. at para. 5.

[13] The suggested guidelines for determining hourly rates for lawyers depending upon their years of experience can be found in the Information for the Profession released by the Costs Subcommittee of the Rules of Civil Procedure.

[14] Ibid. at paras. 8-17.

[15] The Trustees of the Drywall Acoustic Lathing and Insulation Local 675 Pension Fund v. SNC Group Inc., 2013 ONSC 7122. [Drywall Acoustic].

[16] Ibid. at para. 16 and 18.

[17] Kristen A. Thoreson, “Class Action Costs Orders Aim to Provide Greater Access to Justice”, The Advocates Society

[18] Julius Melnitzer quoting Kim Orr, “Judge takes aim at class counsel in lowering costs”, The Law Times, November 18, 2013

 

CHANGING COST TRENDS IN CLASS ACTIONS

Ontario Securities Commission Willing to Accept “No-Contest” Settlements

On March 11, 2014, the Ontario Securities Commission (the “OSC”) adopted the following enforcement initiatives aimed at encouraging cooperation from market participants and streamlining its dispute resolution process:

  1. A new program to facilitate the settlement of appropriate enforcement cases in circumstances where the respondent does not make formal admissions respecting its misconduct (sometimes referred to as no-contest settlements);
  2. A new program for explicit no-enforcement action agreements;
  3. A clarified process for self-reporting under Staff’s credit for cooperation program; and
  4. Enhanced public disclosure by Staff of credit granted to persons for their cooperation during enforcement investigations.[1]

Perhaps most noteworthy among these four new initiatives, which are set out in OSC Staff Notice 15-702, is that the OSC is now willing to resolve certain enforcement matters on the basis of a settlement agreement in which the respondent does not make formal admissions regarding its alleged misconduct or contravention of Ontario securities law. [2]

Historically, the OSC, and other regulatory organizations, refused to enter into settlement agreements without an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. This approach often stymied settlement discussions as formal admissions could (and likely would) be admissible in any related civil proceeding.

This new policy to accept no-contest settlements fosters the efficient resolution of regulatory disputes and is ultimately a positive development. It enables market participants to enter into settlement agreements, in proper circumstances, without the risk of admissions against interest (a constant feature of all settlement agreements in the old regime) being used against them in subsequent civil proceedings.

However, the OSC indicated that no-contest settlement agreements would not be appropriate in serious cases where:

  1. the person has engaged in abusive, fraudulent or criminal conduct;
  2. the person’s misconduct has resulted in investor harm which has not been addressed in a satisfactory manner; and
  3. the person has misled or obstructed Staff during its investigation. [3]

In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission has entered into no-contest settlements for many years. Yet, this approach has been controversial. In U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission v. Citigroup Global Markets Inc., for example, Judge Rakoff refused to approve a $285 million no-contest settlement agreement as it was “neither reasonable, nor fair, nor adequate, nor in the public interest.” [4]

One hopes that the OSC’s adoption of no-contest settlement agreements reflects a trend among regulatory bodies. It remains to be seen whether other provincial securities regulators and/or the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada—the national, self-regulatory organization charged with the oversight of investment advisors and trading activity on Canada’s debt and equity marketplaces—will follow suit.

 

[1] Ontario Securities Commission, News Release, “OSC Proceeds with New Initiatives to Strengthen Enforcement” (11 March 2014), online: OSC

[2] Ontario Securities Commission, “OSC Staff Notice 15-702, Revised Credit for Cooperation Program” 37 OSCB 2583 (13 March 2014), online: OSC 

[3] Ibid at para 20.

[4] U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission v. Citigroup Global Markets Inc., 11 Civ. 7387 (2011).

Ontario Securities Commission Willing to Accept “No-Contest” Settlements

Company Press Releases during Proxy Fights may not be Proxy Solicitations

Overview

In Smoothwater Capital Partners LP I v. Equity Financial Holdings Inc., 2014 ONSC 324, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice held that a press release issued by Equity Financial Holdings Inc. (the “Company”) which defended its board’s actions was not a proxy solicitation and was thus permitted under the Canada Business Corporations Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-44 (the “CBCA”).

Discussion

Smoothwater Capital Partners LP I, a dissident shareholder of the Company (the “Dissident”), issued a press release critical of the Company’s board and soliciting proxies in support of its efforts to replace the board. The Company responded with its own press release defending its board’s actions and criticizing the Dissident (the “Press Release”). The Press Release stated that the Company would “provide a management information circular that will be mailed to shareholders”. It did not contain a request for proxies.

The Dissident applied to Court for an order that the Company comply with, and be restrained from, acting in breach of s. 150 of the CBCA. The Dissident asserted that section 150 of the CBCA prohibited the Press Release, as the Company solicited proxies before delivering a management proxy circular. The Company responded that the Press Release was intended to inform its shareholders and rebut inaccurate statements made in the Dissident’s press release, but did not solicit proxies.

Justice McEwen held that while “solicitation” under the CBCA should be defined broadly, no such solicitation had taken place in this case. The test of whether a document solicits proxies is based on its “principal purpose”, not whether it had been created during a proxy fight. In the context of this case, the principal purpose of the Press Release was to provide certain explanations and defend the Company’s historical position, not to solicit proxies. Justice McEwen found that the Company was thus entitled to respond to the Dissident’s allegations in a single press release, but noted that he was not asked to consider whether multiple press releases could constitute a proxy solicitation.

Justice McEwen distinguished the decisions in Western Mines Ltd. v. Sheridan, [1975] B.C.J. No. 54 (S.C.), Brown v. Duby, 1980 CanLII 1734 (Ont. S.C.J.) and Polar Star Mining Corporation v. Willock, 2009 CanLII 11436 (Ont S.C.J.) as the press releases in those cases expressly referenced an intention to solicit. He further distinguished these cases – and an additional American case cited by the Dissident – on the grounds that the press releases therein were issued by shareholders and there was thus no corporate position to defend.

Comment

This case stands for the proposition that a corporation is entitled to defend itself from attacks during a proxy fight provided that the principal purpose of the communication is not to solicit proxies. It appears that the Company’s decision not to request proxies in the Press Release and not to issue further press releases on this matter were factors in Justice McEwen’s finding that the Press Release was not a proxy solicitation.

Company Press Releases during Proxy Fights may not be Proxy Solicitations

Green v. CIBC: Court of Appeal Revisits Limitation Period for Secondary Market Securities Class Actions and Limits Common Law Negligent Misrepresentation Class Actions

Overview

The Court of Appeal for Ontario’s recent decision in Green v. Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce [1] (“Green”) is significant in two respects.

First, the Court clarified the limitation period applicable to securities class actions under the secondary market liability provisions of the Ontario Securities Act [2] (the “Act”).

Second, the Court also determined that common law negligent misrepresentation claims could not be certified as class actions on the basis of “fraud on the market” or “efficient market” economic theories. In other words, the question of individual reliance cannot be supplanted by the notion of inferred group reliance except in very limited circumstances.

Court of Appeal Overrules its Earlier Decision in Sharma v. Timminco

In Sharma v. Timminco [3] (“Timminco”), the Court of Appeal held that a plaintiff in a secondary market misrepresentation claim must obtain leave from the Court to proceed with such a claim w Basithin the three-year limitation period established in the Act and that it was not sufficient to simply issue a statement of claim alleging that the defendants were liable under the secondary market provisions of the Act. The Court held that section 28 of the Class Proceedings Act [4] (“CPA”), which suspends the limitation period for claims which are the subject of a class action, did not operate to suspend the limitation period for secondary market liability claims because leave of the Court is required to proceed with such claims. Thus, a plaintiff had not obtained leave to proceed with the claim within three years of the date the document containing the misrepresentation was released, the claim was time-barred.

In Green, the Court of Appeal determined that its earlier decision in Timminco was incorrect and had the following unintended consequences:

• it deprived class members of an important benefit of the class action regime; that is, the suspension of the limitation period under section 28 of the CPA; and

• it undercut the ability of investors to initiate class actions in compliance with the limitation period.

The Court of Appeal overruled Timminco and held that when a representative plaintiff brings a secondary market misrepresentation class action and pleads the statutory cause of action, the facts on which the claim is based, and the intention to seek leave, the limitation period is suspended. Therefore, a plaintiff has three years from the date a misrepresentation is made to commence a secondary market misrepresentation claim (as opposed to three years to both commence a claim and obtain leave to pursue it).

Reliance in Common Law Negligent Misrepresentation Claims

In addition, the Court of Appeal considered whether common law negligent misrepresentation claims could be certified on the basis of “fraud on the market” or “efficient market” economic theories. Under these theories, it is unnecessary for investors to demonstrate that they relied on the specific alleged misrepresentation in purchasing securities. The question of reliance is significant as securities class actions in Canada which asserted common law negligent misrepresentation claims, typically faltered on the basis that an investor’s reliance was an individual issue unsuitable for determination in a class proceeding. Certain class action judges in Canada, while rejecting the “fraud on the market” theory to supplant an analysis of individual reliance were nonetheless certifying common law negligent misrepresentation claims, even where an investor’s reliance would otherwise be an individual issue.

In Green, the Court upheld the motion judge’s decision declining to certify common law negligent misrepresentation claims on the grounds that reliance was an individual issue. While the Court held that in certain limited circumstances inferred reliance could provide a basis for a negligent misrepresentation claim, and certain issues related to the negligent misrepresentation claim could be certified as common issues, it rejected the inferred reliance argument in the context of the common law negligent misrepresentation claim in Green.

Comment

In Green, the Court of Appeal adopted a purposive approach to class action procedure and focused, in large part, on the objective of providing access to justice for plaintiffs. The Court held that the three-year limitation period for securities class actions will be suspended when a representative plaintiff pleads: the statutory cause of action, the underlying facts, and the intent to seek leave.

However, while the Court made it easier for plaintiffs to proceed with statutory secondary market securities claims, it also imposed a significant limit on common law negligent misrepresentation claims. This distinction is important. The statutory regime imposes limits on damages for responsible issuers, directors, officers, and experts, such as auditors and lawyers, except in the case of fraud. Plaintiffs sought to avoid these damages caps by pursuing common law claims. However, the Court’s decision in Green limits the ability of plaintiffs to pursue such claims.

 

 

[1] Green v Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, 2014 ONCA 90 [Green].

 

[2] Securities Act, RSO 1990, c s.5, Part XXIII.1.

 

[3] Sharma v Timminco, 2012 ONCA 107, leave to appeal to SCC refused, [2012] SCCA no 157 [Timminco].

 

[4] Class Proceedings Act, 1992, SO 1992, c 6 [CPA].

 

Green v. CIBC: Court of Appeal Revisits Limitation Period for Secondary Market Securities Class Actions and Limits Common Law Negligent Misrepresentation Class Actions

Supreme Court defers to Securities Commission on the Interpretation of Limitation Periods in Secondary Proceedings

On December 5, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada released its much-anticipated decision in McLean v. British Columbia (Securities Commission) [1], providing clarity on the limitation period applicable to “secondary proceedings” in the securities enforcement context. Specifically, the principal issue before the Supreme Court was when the 6-year limitation period under the B.C. Securities Act begins to run when one provincial securities regulator wishes to enforce the order of another – as of the date of the underlying misconduct or the date of the extra-provincial order? The BCSC argued that the event giving rise to the proceeding against McLean was not her original misconduct, but rather the fact of having agreed with a securities regulator to be subject to regulatory action. Writing for the majority, Justice Moldaver upheld the BCSC’s order, finding that, on a standard of reasonableness, the interpretation advanced by the BCSC should be given deference.

Background

In 2008, the appellant Patricia McLean entered into a settlement agreement with the Ontario Securities Commission (“OSC”) in respect of misconduct that predated 2001. The salient parts of the resulting OSC order [2] (the “OSC Order”) barred McLean from trading in securities for 5 years, and banned her from acting as an officer or director of certain entities registered under Ontario’s Securities Act for 10 years. In 2010, the BCSC issued a reciprocal order adopting the same prohibitions of the OSC Order pursuant to s. 161(6)(d) of its Securities Act. McLean appealed the reciprocal order on the basis that the relevant limitation period had expired: s. 159 of the B.C. Securities Act provides that proceedings “must not be commenced more than 6 years after the date of the events that give rise to the proceedings”.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether, for the purposes of s. 161(6)(d) of the B.C. Securities Act, “the events” that trigger the 6-year limitation period in s. 159 was (i) the underlying misconduct that gave rise to the settlement agreement, or (ii) the settlement agreement itself. Under the former interpretation – advanced by McLean – the BCSC order would be statute-barred. If, however, the limitation period clock began to run on the date of the OSC Order (as the BCSC contended), the BCSC order would stand as the proceeding was commenced well within 6 years of the OSC Order.

Discussion

Moldaver J. first focused on the preliminary issue of the appropriate standard of review regarding the BCSC’s order. Contrary to the BC Court of Appeal’s decision, Moldaver J. held that the governing standard of review was one of reasonableness, not correctness, on the basis that the resolution of unclear language in an administrative decision maker’s “home statute” is usually best left to the decision maker. This approach is consistent with recent Supreme Court of Canada jurisprudence (see Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) v. Alberta Teachers’ Association [3]), which held that there is a presumption of reasonableness when it comes to a tribunal’s interpretation of its home statute(s).

With respect to the limitation period issue, although Moldaver J. concluded that “both interpretations are reasonable” and “both find some support in the text, context, and purpose of the statute”, he held that judicial deference must be given to the BCSC’s order:

[40] The bottom line here, then, is that the Commission holds the interpretative upper hand: under reasonableness review, we defer to any reasonable interpretation adopted by an administrative decision maker, even if other reasonable interpretations exist…Judicial deference in such instances is itself a principle of modern statutory interpretation.

[41] Accordingly, the appellant’s burden here is not only to show that her competing interpretation is reasonable, but also that the Commission’s interpretation is unreasonable

According to the Supreme Court, when faced with two competing reasonable interpretations of an administrative body’s “home statute”, the administrator – in this case, the BCSC – with the benefit of its expertise, is entitled to choose between those interpretations and “courts must respect that choice”.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court’s decision reinforces judicial deference when it comes to securities regulators dealing with their own governing statutes and regulations. The resolution of unclear language in a “home statute” is usually best left to administrative tribunals, as a tribunal is presumed to be in the best position to weigh the policy considerations in choosing between multiple reasonable interpretations of such ambiguous language. Although the interpretation of a limitation period was at issue, which is arguably a general question of law, the Court applied a reasonableness standard of review because of the tribunal’s construal of its home statute. This proposition will likely have far-reaching application.

Moreover, an important policy consideration that appears to motivate the decision is the need for inter-jurisdictional cooperation among securities regulators, given the challenges inherent in the decentralized model of securities regulation in Canada. While a securities commission cannot abrogate its responsibility to make its own determination as to whether an order is in the public interest, sections like s. 161(6) of the B.C. Securities Act obviate the need for inefficient parallel and duplicative proceedings – in this case, by providing a triggering “event” other than the underlying misconduct. It remains to be seen whether provinces can “piggy-back” on reciprocal orders sequentially, a question that the court did not want to specifically answer at this time. However, in addressing McLean’s concerns that the interpretation of the BCSC could effectively lead to indeterminate proceedings by provincial securities regulators, the Supreme Court seemed to suggest that an overall reasonableness approach to a regulator’s discretion would alleviate such concerns.

__________________________________________________________

[1] http://canlii.ca/en/ca/scc/doc/2013/2013scc67/2013scc67.html
[2] http://www.osc.gov.on.ca/en/9009.htm
[3] http://www.canlii.org/en/ca/scc/doc/2011/2011scc61/2011scc61.html?searchUrlHash=AAAAAQALMjAxMSBzY2MgNjEAAAAAAQ

Supreme Court defers to Securities Commission on the Interpretation of Limitation Periods in Secondary Proceedings

Securities regulators propose amendments to oil & gas disclosure standards

The Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA) have published for comment proposed amendments to National Instrument 51-101 Standards of Disclosure for Oil and Gas Activities (NI 51-101) and Companion Policy 51-101CP Standards of Disclosure for Oil and Gas Activities (51-101CP). NI 51-101 and 51-101CP set forth the disclosure standards applicable to reporting issuers engaged in oil and gas activities. In the proposed amendments, the CSA target several aspects of the disclosure regime applicable to oil and gas reporting issuers, including the following:

  • The disclosure of resources other than reserves;
  • The disclosure of oil and gas metrics;
  • The disclosure of resources under alternative disclosure regimes; and
  • The refinement of the product type definition.

Disclosure of resources other than reserves: Currently, a reporting issuer can elect to disclose contingent resources or prospective resources in conjunction with its annual filings without triggering any additional reporting obligations. Under the proposed amendments, if a reporting issuer elects to disclose contingent or prospective resources in conjunction with its annual filings then the reporting issuer must also disclose the related future net revenue and the resource estimates must be evaluated or audited by a qualified reserves evaluator or auditor.

Disclosure of oil and gas metrics: Currently, the disclosure of only certain oil and gas metrics (e.g. netbacks, finding and development costs) triggers specific methodology or disclosure requirements under NI 51-101. The CSA are proposing a principle-based approach applicable to the disclosure of all oil and gas metrics. Under the proposed amendments, the disclosure of any oil and gas metric requires the reporting issuer to identify the standard, methodology and meaning of the metric, and to provide a cautionary statement as to the reliability of the metric. In addition, if there is no identifiable standard for the metric, then the reporting issuer must disclose the parameters used in the calculation of the metric and a cautionary statement that the metric does not have any standardized meaning.

Disclosure of resources under alternative disclosure regimes: Currently, if a reporting issuer is subject to an alternative resources disclosure regime, such as that prescribed by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, then it must obtain exemptive relief to present resources disclosure in accordance with such alternative disclosure regime. Under the proposed amendments, a reporting issuer that is subject to an alternative disclosure regime may present such alternative disclosure provided that the alternative disclosure is accompanied by the disclosure required by NI 51-101; and the alternative disclosure satisfies certain other conditions relating to the adequacy and reliability of the alternative disclosure regime. In addition, the estimates prepared under the alternative disclosure regime must have been prepared or audited by a qualified reserves evaluator or auditor.

Refinement of the product type definition: The proposed amendments reconcile the definition of product type to the definition used in the Canadian Oil and Gas Evaluation Handbook. Under the proposed amendments, the existing distinction based on whether the product is conventional or unconventional is eliminated in favour of using the source and process for recovery of the product in question. In addition, the concept of production group is eliminated.

Other effects of the proposed amendments: Some of the other areas of oil and gas disclosure affected by the proposed amendments include the following:

  • Clarifying the concept of marketability as it relates to the reporting of oil and gas volumes;
  • Clarifying the determination of abandonment and reclamation costs and mandating the disclosure of such costs in the determination of future net revenue and in the presentation of significant factors and uncertainties in annual filings;
  • Clarifying the requirement to obtain a consent from a qualified reserves evaluator or auditor in relation to the qualified person’s report provided in connection with the reporting issuer’s annual filings; and
  • Clarifying the disclosure requirement when a reporting issuer has no reserves.

CSA Request for Comments: The CSA welcome comments on the proposed amendments and have posed five specific questions which commenters may choose to address. The comment period ends on January 17, 2014. The full text of the proposed amendments can be found here.

Securities regulators propose amendments to oil & gas disclosure standards

Court Upholds AGM Chair’s Rejection of Proxies Due to Material Misrepresentations in the Dissidents’ Circular

Overview

In Hastman v. St. Elias Mines Ltd., 2013 BCSC 1069, dissident shareholders, with proxies representing over 90% of the vote, attended the Annual General Meeting (the “AGM”) of St. Elias Mines Ltd. (the “Company”). The Chair presiding at the AGM refused to accept these proxies due to material misrepresentations in the dissidents’ information circular (the “Circular”). The B.C. Supreme Court upheld the Chair’s ruling.

Discussion

The Company was a junior mining company incorporated under the British Columbia Business Corporations Act (the “BCBCA”). In 2012, certain shareholders expressed their dissatisfaction with management. After the dissidents proposed their nominees to the Company’s board (the “Nominees”), the Company stated in its management information circular that two of the Nominees were ineligible to serve. The dissidents subsequently published their own Circular which disagreed with this position.

The day after the Circular was published on SEDAR, the Company wrote to the dissidents pointing out that the Circular contained serious and material misstatements, ranging from misstating educational credentials to incorrectly stating that none of the Nominees will be unable to serve.

At the AGM, the Chair rejected the dissidents’ proxies as being invalid due to uncured misrepresentations in the Circular. She considered that the dissidents had been given an opportunity to rectify these issues but had failed or refused to do so in advance of the AGM. She also was concerned that two of the Nominees would be unable to serve. As such, the management nominees were elected.

The dissidents brought an application under section 227 of the BCBCA for a remedy in oppression against the Company, the Chair and certain other individual respondents. Justice Steeves of the British Columbia Supreme Court determined that the Circular contained material misrepresentations.

Justice Steeves held that while “a proxy battle does not always operate by Marquess of Queensberry Rules” it is important that information circulars “be complete and accurate”, noting that the dissidents should have ensured the Circular was correct or, at minimum, issued a press release.

Comment

The dissidents argued that Kluwak v. Pasternak (2006), 26 B.L.R. (4th) 215 (Ont. S.C.J.) applied. In Kluwak, while the judge found the dissidents’ circular contained material misrepresentations, she nonetheless overturned the chair’s decision to disallow the proxies. Justice Steeves distinguished Kluwak on two grounds. In Kluwak, the Court had found that it would be unfair to allow management to “wait in the weeds” and only raise concerns about the dissidents’ circular at the meeting at issue. However, in this case, management immediately informed the dissidents about the problems with their Circular. Additionally, Justice Steeves held that there is no equivalent provision in the BCBCA to section 107 of the OBCA which grants the Court broad discretion in “determining any controversy” regarding an election. Note, however, that the oppression remedy has been described by commentators as: “beyond question, the broadest, most comprehensive and most open-ended shareholder remedy in the common law world … unprecedented in its scope.” Had the Company’s management behaved as the management in Kluwak had, it is quite possible that Justice Steeves might have been persuaded to engage the broad oppression remedy powers to make an appropriate order.

This decision illustrates the importance of ensuring the accuracy of an information circular in a proxy contest. Even though 90% of the votes had been cast for the dissidents, the Court still upheld the Chair’s decision to reject those proxies due to material misrepresentations made in the Circular. The decision also illustrates that if management believes there are problems in the dissidents’ materials, management must be proactive in alerting dissidents to these problems rather than waiting in the weeds.

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Court Upholds AGM Chair’s Rejection of Proxies Due to Material Misrepresentations in the Dissidents’ Circular

UPDATE: Zungui Class Action Settlements against Remaining Defendants Approved by Court

**This blog post was co-authored by Dentons’ Michael Schafler and Michael Beeforth.

On August 27, 2013, Justice Perell released his decision (2013 ONSC 5490) approving three settlements valued at $10.85 million, bringing the class action against Zungui Haixi Corp. (“Zungui”) and others to a close. Under the approved settlements, Zungui will pay $8.1 million, auditors Ernst & Young (“E&Y”) will pay $2 million and the company’s underwriting syndicate (CIBC World Markets Inc., Canaccord Genuity Corp., GMP Securities LP and Mackie Research Capital Corporation) will pay $750,000. In an earlier May 2013 decision, Perell J. had certified the class action for settlement purposes in respect of the Zungui and E&Y settlements.

As summarized here, the proposed class action brought by Zungui’s investors stemmed from an August 22, 2011 announcement that E&Y had suspended its audit of Zungui’s 2011 financial statements. The company’s shares immediately dropped by 77% and were subsequently cease-traded. The proposed class was comprised of various groups of investors (each represented by separate counsel), including purchasers in the initial December 2009 IPO, investors who received shares in exchange for securities of a Zungui subsidiary prior to the IPO, and secondary market purchasers.

The proposed plan of distribution under the settlements allocated various levels of compensation to the investor groups depending on, amongst other factors, when investors acquired or sold their shares. The plan did not, however, contemplate any compensation to class members who acquired shares on or following the August 22, 2011 E&Y disclosure (though the settlements included a release of these class members’ claims). One investor who had purchased his shares on August 22, 2011 objected to the fairness of the plan of distribution on the basis that the August 22, 2011 disclosure “[did] not clearly foreshadow the events that followed” and that “there was no way of knowing that the worst possible outcome would come to pass, with investors unable to trade their shares ever again”.

In considering whether the plan of distribution was fair and reasonable, Perell J. noted that if class members such as the objecting investor had appreciated that the parties had only included them in the class as a bargaining chip and would eventually exclude them from the plan of distribution while releasing their claims, those investors would likely have opted out of the class action. As it stood, Perell J. found it “inappropriate and unfair to include August 22, 2011 purchasers as Class Members and then exclude them from the Plan of Distribution”. He thus revised the plan to include August 22, 2011 purchasers but discounted their claims to reflect the increased risk of their investments.

While the precedential value of this decision is likely limited by the fact that the court’s authority to vary the plan of distribution was expressly provided for by the settlement agreements, Perell J. made it clear that he would not have approved the settlements without this authority. Perell J. also noted that s. 26 of the Class Proceedings Act, 1992 provides the court with ample discretion and scope for creativity in determining or approving a plan of distribution where a judgment has been issued. Based on these comments, class counsel would be wise to expressly advise settling class members of the court’s ability to vary distributions, especially in cases involving objecting class members or other potential fairness concerns.

UPDATE: Zungui Class Action Settlements against Remaining Defendants Approved by Court

Class Action Decision Considers Secondary Market Misrepresentation Actions

On July 25, 2013, Justice Belobaba of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice released his decision (2013 ONSC 4083) certifying a proposed class action brought by the Ironworkers Ontario Pension Fund against Manulife Financial Corp. and two of its former executives, Dominic D’Alessandro (CEO) and Peter Rubenovitch (CFO). Belobaba J. also granted the plaintiffs leave to commence an action for secondary market misrepresentation under s. 138 of the Ontario Securities Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.5 (the “Act”).

Background

In early 2004, Manulife added a number of new guaranteed investment products (the “Guaranteed Products”) to its array of segregated funds. Unlike most of its older products, Manulife decided that the Guaranteed Products would not be hedged or reinsured – any risk of equity market fluctuations would be borne entirely by Manulife. The Guaranteed Products were very successful, growing Manulife’s business from approximately $71 billion in early 2004 to approximately $165 billion by the end of 2008. However, almost all (if not completely all) of that business was unhedged and uninsured. When the global financial crisis hit in the fall of 2008 and the Canadian and American equity markets fell by more than 35%, Manulife was badly overexposed.

On February 12, 2009, Manulife released its 2008 annual financial statements which disclosed that corporate profits had fallen by almost $3.8 billion from the previous year ($2 billion of which was attributable to the Guaranteed Products line) and EPS had dropped from $2.78 to $0.32. The statements also noted that Manulife had increased its reserves from $576 million at year-end 2007 to $5.783 billion because of its unhedged exposure to the equity markets. Investors reacted immediately: Manulife’s share price dropped 6% on the date it released its financial statements, fell a further 37% over the following ten days and, by the end of Manulife’s Q1 2009, was trading at $8.92, a 77% decline from its $38.28 trading price six months earlier.

The plaintiffs commenced a proposed class action in July 2009 based on claims of negligence, negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment and the secondary market liability provision of the Act. The plaintiffs alleged that while Manulife was entitled to make a business decision not to hedge or reinsure its equity market risk, it had a legal obligation to fully and fairly disclose to investors its decision to abandon such techniques and the resulting risks. The plaintiffs further alleged, among other things, that Manulife consistently misrepresented in its core disclosure documents that it had in place “effective, rigorous, disciplined and prudent” risk management systems, policies and practices.

Discussion

In certifying the action as a class proceeding and granting leave to pursue a s. 138 claim, Belobaba J. focused on two aspects integral to asserting the statutory cause of action: the test for leave to pursue such a proceeding, and the requirement under the Class Proceedings Act, S.O. 1992, c. 6, that the pleadings disclose a cause of action.

Leave Test under Section 138.8(1) of the Act

Belobaba J. discussed at some length the uncertainties surrounding the second branch of the leave test set out at s. 138.8(1) of the Act: that is, that there is a reasonable possibility that the action will be resolved at trial in favour of the plaintiff [1]. In Ontario, class action judges have consistently treated the “reasonable possibility” threshold as a relatively low standard, holding that the plaintiff must simply show, based on a reasoned consideration of the evidence, that there is something more than a de minimis possibility of success at trial. On the other hand, courts in British Columbia have viewed the test as a higher standard which is intended to do more than screen out clearly frivolous, scandalous or vexatious actions.

Belobaba J. pointed out that while his opinion was more consistent with the latter interpretation, the debate may have been decided in favour of the more lenient interpretation by the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision in R. v. Imperial Tobacco Canada, 2011 SCC 42. In that decision, the Supreme Court held that under the strike-pleadings rule – which allows a claim to be struck if it is plain and obvious, assuming the facts as pleaded to be true, that the pleading discloses no reasonable cause of action – one must only show a “reasonable prospect of success”, which amounts to the same thing as a “reasonable possibility of success” and may effectively render the test under s. 138.8 of the Act a de minimis threshold (as articulated by the Ontario courts). In any event, Belobaba J. held that he would have come to the same conclusion in favour of the plaintiffs under either interpretation of the test.

Certification under Class Proceedings Act

In certifying the action as a class proceeding, Belobaba J. addressed Manulife’s argument that the pleadings did not disclose a cause of action claim in respect of the s. 138 claim because the action was not commenced within three years of the alleged misrepresentations (as required by s. 138.14 of the Act and the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision in Sharma v. Timminco Ltd., 2012 ONCA 107).

While Timminco is currently under review by a five-member panel of the Court of Appeal, Belobaba J. agreed with Manulife that he is bound by the current state of the law. However, he also agreed with the plaintiffs’ position that Timminco did not deal directly with the court’s jurisdiction to grant leave nunc pro tunc, and that case law subsequent to Timminco has held that the limitation period in s. 138 of the Act is subject to the special circumstances doctrine (which provides a limited jurisdiction to make orders nunc pro tunc that have the effect of reviving a statute-barred cause of action [2]). On this basis, Belobaba J. concluded that he could not say that it is plain and obvious that the limitation period defence applies and the statutory claim is certain to fail.

Conclusion

Justice Belobaba’s decision, while uncontroversial in its application of current legal principles, stands as an interesting commentary on future potential developments regarding the threshold to be applied in the test for leave under s. 138 of the Act. Indeed, in light of Imperial Tobacco, it may be inevitable that a lower standard emerges which, in Belobaba J.’s words, renders the test for leave “nothing more than a speed bump”. It remains to be seen in future case law whether his premonition proves true.

[1] Belobaba J. held that the first branch – that the action is being brought in good faith – was easily satisfied based on the plaintiffs’ argument and content of their expert reports.

[2] See, e.g., Millwright Regional Council of Ontario Pension Trust Fund v. Celestica Inc., 2012 ONSC 6083 at para. 85.

Class Action Decision Considers Secondary Market Misrepresentation Actions

Court Affirms Standard of Review for Decisions of Securities Commissions is Reasonableness

Background

The Appellants, Sanji Sawh and Vlad Trkulja, who were both mutual fund dealers and exempt market dealers, founded Investment House of Canada (“IHOC”) in 2003. IHOC was a member of the Mutual Fund Dealers Association (“MFDA”), a self-regulatory organization (“SRO”) recognized by the Ontario Securities Commission (the “Commission”).

In 2009, following an investigation into IHOC, the MFDA commenced a disciplinary proceeding in relation to several alleged violations of the MFDA Rules, By-laws or Policies by IHOC and the Appellants. The Appellants and the MFDA subsequently reached a settlement agreement pursuant to which IHOC resigned from the MFDA and wound down, and the Appellants admitted to several contraventions of the MFDA Rules. The settlement agreement was approved by an MFDA hearing panel.

As a consequence of the settlement agreement, the Appellants’ registration as dealing representatives of a mutual fund dealer was suspended. Six weeks after the settlement agreement, the Appellants applied to the Commission to have their registrations reinstated, which was denied. The Appellants requested a review of the decision and, after a six-day hearing before two commissioners, the OSC determined that the Appellants lacked the proficiency and integrity required by sections 27(1) and (2) of the Securities Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.5 (the “Act”), to be registered as dealing representatives of a mutual fund dealer, and that reinstatement of their registrations would be otherwise objectionable.

The Appellants appealed to the Divisional Court, arguing that the conduct reviewed by the OSC was almost exclusively conduct that had already been fully investigated by the MFDA – which had not imposed a sanction barring the Appellants from applying for reinstatement of their registrations – and that by refusing their application, the Commission had departed from its established practice of deferring to the determinations made by expert SROs such as the MFDA.

Discussion

In delivering the Panel’s decision, Justice Sachs agreed with the Appellants that the case law surrounding Commission reviews of SRO decisions highlights the importance of deference to an SRO’s findings. In the Appellants’ case, however, the Commission was not conducting a hearing and review of the MFDA’s settlement agreement or the hearing panel’s decision approving that agreement (which, in any event, did not provide that the Appellants’ registration would be reinstated).

Rather, the Commission’s decision was an exercise of its discretion under section 27 of the Act to consider whether the Appellants were suitable candidates for re-registration, over which the Commission has sole jurisdiction (as the MFDA has not been delegated this authority). Justice Sachs held that the Commission’s decision was justifiable and transparent, and met the applicable standard of review of reasonableness.

The Divisional Court’s decision serves as a reminder that SROs derive their jurisdiction by virtue of being recognized by provincial securities commissions and that the power of SROs and their members is always subject to the oversight of those commissions. It also reaffirms the principle, recently expressed in other contexts,[1] that the courts will generally afford considerable deference to the decisions of securities commissions by applying a standard of review of reasonableness.

[1] See, e.g., Cornish v. Ontario Securities Commission, 2013 ONSC 1310 (CanLII) which dealt with continuous disclosure obligations, and Rankin v. Ontario Securities Commission, 2013 ONSC 112 (CanLII) which addressed a settlement entered into between the Appellant and the Commission.

Court Affirms Standard of Review for Decisions of Securities Commissions is Reasonableness