An imperfect pleading (apparently) still perfects a construction lien

ScalesA Decision (arising from a motion to have a construction lien discharged and security posted returned) in 984499 Ont. Inc. v. 1159337 Ont. Inc. et al. was released by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on July 2, 2013, and we are – yet again – reminded how forgiving the Ontario courts can be when a lien claimant has arguably failed to comply with some ostensibly fundamental aspect of the Construction Lien Act.

The facts are (whittled down) as follows:

The Plaintiff (a general contractor for a hotel renovation) was unpaid and preserved its lien by registering a construction lien within the required time.  The owner posted security with the Court in order to vacate the lien from title and the lien claimant commenced an action.  However, the action commenced by the Plaintiff did not:

    • expressly seek to enforce a construction lien – against the security in Court or against the land;
    • mention the lien claim registered on title, the vacating order, the monies paid into court or perfection of the lien; and
    • mention or plead the Construction Lien Act at all other than to plead reliance on the trust provisions of the Construction Lien Act.

The Defendant (owner) brought a motion for a ruling that the construction lien had not been perfected in accordance with the Construction Lien Act because the Statement of Claim was not in the nature of an action to enforce the lien as is required by section 36(3) of the Construction Lien Act and that it could not be an action to enforce a lien because it pleaded the trust provisions of the Construction Lien Act and section 50(2) says that an action to enforce a lien and a trust claim shall not be joined together.

Mr. Justice Whalen dismissed the motion and, relying on Rules 1.04(1) and 26 of the Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure, allowed the Plaintiff to “cure” or “fix” the Statement of Claim to effectively bring it in compliance with the Construction Lien Act.

My own view is that this Decision is wrong and, like other similar Decisions, is in stark contrast to what I think is a better line of cases in B.C. (under its fundamentally very similar Builders Lien Act) which hold that lien legislation, while being remedial, creates an extraordinary remedy (it allows one party to encumber the property of another before judgment and creates priorities between creditors, etc) that is strictly a creature of statute and so the legislation must be interpreted strictly and the court has no discretion to depart from the express statutory requirements.  I have little doubt that if 984499 Ont. Inc. v. 1159337 Ont. Inc. et al. had been decided in B.C., the Defendant’s motion would have succeeded.  See, for example, Nita Lake Lodge Corp. v. Conpact Systems (2004) Ltd., a 2006 Decision of the Supreme Court of B.C. in which a $300K+ lien was extinguished solely because the lien claimant failed to properly name the company with which it had contracted and from which it claimed to be owed money.

While, the Ontario Construction Lien Act contains a curative provision at section 6, it does not apply to pleadings and is not so broad as to convert a Statement of Claim that does not seek to obtain or enforce a construction lien into one that does.  Similarly, this wasn’t a case where there was some poorly drafted paragraphs but it was still, in substance, a claim to enforce a construction lien as required by the Construction Lien Act such that a Rule 26 amendment could improve the pleading or fix some minor flaws.  Rather, it was an action that did not plead material facts to support a finding of a lien or claim a lien as a remedy and so the Plaintiff, in my view, had not perfected its lien as required by section 36 of the Construction Lien Act and the lien should have been discharged and the security returned to the owner.

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Ontario Court of Appeal finds that the decisions of Tarion’s inspectors are “judicial decisions”

The Ontario Court of Appeal  released  Metropolitan Toronto Condominium Corporation No. 1352 v. Newport Beach Development Inc. earlier this week.  It’s an interesting case and may actually provide some useful jurisprudence in litigation involving defects and claims under the Ontario New Home Warranties Plan Act (ONHWPA).

The facts are nicely summarized at the outset of the Decision as follows:

2] The respondent Metropolitan Toronto Condominium Corporation No. 1352 (“Metro 1352”) manages a luxury condominium project in Etobicoke near the shore of Lake Ontario. It alleges that the project has two major construction defects. It claims that the sanitary sewer system was not built properly, causing toilets in the condominium units to overflow and the units themselves to flood with sewage. It also claims that a systemic failure of the exterior cladding over the project, called the exterior insulated finish system (“EIFS”), has caused water penetration in the condominium units.

[3] Metro 1352 sought compensation for these two defects under the Ontario New Home Warranties Plan Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. 0.31 (the “Act”). The administrator of the Act, the respondent Tarion Warranty Corporation, denied compensation. Instead of appealing Tarion’s decisions to the Licence Appeal Tribunal, as it was entitled to do, Metro 1352 started this litigation. It has sued Newport, the vendor and declarant of the project; Canderel, a developer related to Newport; Spampinato, an officer of Canderel; Enersys Engineering Group Ltd. and Eric Pun, the engineers on the project; and Tarion. It has asserted causes of action for breach of statutory warranty, negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract. The engineers have been noted in default. The other defendants have not delivered a statement of defence.

[4] On its Rule 21 motion Newport asked for various forms of relief, but principally for an order dismissing the action on the ground that the litigation is an abuse of process. Newport argued that Tarion’s decisions denying warranty coverage could only be reviewed by an appeal to the License Appeal Tribunal. Either the doctrine of issue estoppel or the rule against collateral attack prevented Metro 1352 from re-litigating its claim by a civil action. The motion judge, Corrick J., disagreed and dismissed the motion in its entirety.

[5] On its appeal Newport raises three issues, which I put in the form of questions:

(1) Did the motion judge err by failing to dismiss Metro 1352’s claims relating to defects in the sanitary sewer system and the EIFS, both against Newport and Tarion, as an abuse of process?

(2) Did the motion judge err by failing to dismiss the claim for breach of warranty for defects in the sanitary sewer system on the ground that they do not constitute a major structural defect under s. 13(1)(b) of the Act?

(3) Did the motion judge err by failing to dismiss the claim for defects in the EIFS on the ground that the claim was a new cause of action added by amendment to the statement of claim after the expiry of the limitation period?

One of Newport’s arguments in relation to the first question above was that the doctrine of “issue estoppel” should – Metro 1352 having already been provided determinations by Tarion that the defects were not compensable under the ONHWPA – prevent Metro 1352 from suing Newport in Court over those very same issues.

In analyzing Newport’s argument regarding issue estoppel, one of the things that the Court of Appeal had to consider was whether Tarion’s decisions were “judicial” decisions.  To my surprise and horror (OK…not horror, near horror), the Court of Appeal disagreed with the motion judge and ruled that the decisions of Tarion’s inspectors are “judicial” in nature.

I obviously don’t know whether any of the learned judges hearing this appeal have personally gone through the process of a Tarion inspection and of finding out what Tarion deems “warranted” or “not warranted” via its Warranty Assessment Report process. I also don’t know what evidence the learned judges had before them in terms of what the inspectors do (process, rules, policies) and what sort of education and training they have.  That said, in addition to representing clients involved in disputes with Tarion, I’ve been through several Tarion inspections myself  and  “judicial” is not a word that comes to mind when I consider how the Tarion inspectors handled my claims.  In my own experience, the Tarion inspectors that determined what was deemed warranted and what was deemed not warranted:

  • Communicated regularly with both me and the builder in the absence of the other before (and after) issuing the Warranty Assessment Report, making the process far from open and transparent. Both sides can feed the inspector information without the other side necessarily knowing about it and there is, therefore, no way to know what information is being provided and what sort of verification is being done.
  • Did not hold anything that could reasonably be considered a “hearing”.
  • Don’t allow third/non-parties to be present during the inspection. If it is “judicial” or adjudicative in nature, why wouldn’t an owner or builder be permitted to have a lawyer or an expert, for example, present?
  • Adhered rigidly and inflexibly to Tarion’s “Construction Performance Guidelines” which are a useful but, in my view, imperfect and incomplete set of “guidelines”.  There is not much “judicial” analysis involved in robotically applying “guidelines” as though they are infallible and carry no exceptions.
  • Did not have any legal training.
  • Ignored large amounts of information provided to them (such as manufacturer’s installation instructions that had not been followed by our builder).  None of this showed up anywhere in our Warranty Assessment Reports and when I asked about it at the inspection, I was told by one of the inspectors that he “hadn’t looked at it”.
  • Didn’t bring a ladder or binoculars or have any way of “inspecting” second story exterior deficiencies for which they had ample and complete notice were to be assessed.  If the inspectors are tasked with inspecting deficiencies and then making a “judicial” determination regarding same, how can they possibly do so if they show up and don’t have any manner of even looking at the alleged deficiency?
  • Didn’t take note of most things either party said during the inspection. While I don’t think a detailed transcript should be required, when few notes are taken one is left to wonder how much information is actually making it onto “the record”.

At the end of the day, I think that the outcome (and most of the analysis) in this Decision is correct so it may be that not much turns, in practice, on this aspect of the Decision.  It just strikes me – as I expect it might strike many who have had the experience of actually going through the Tarion conciliation inspection and assessment process – that to call Tarion’s internal decision making process “judicial” is inaccurate and diminishes truly judicial decision making.  Just because an animal has a bill, webbed feet, and lays eggs, doesn’t necessarily mean it is a platypus.

Can the Ontario Repair and Storage Liens Act be used to secure unpaid debts in the construction context?

The short answer: Possibly sometimes, maybe.

I recently had a case where this was one of the primary issues.  My client was supplying coated structural steel for a large steel building.  Raw (uncoated) steel was purchased in the US, shipped to Ontario to be coated by a third party subcontractor and, once coated, the steel was then shipped to the project site (located in another Province).  A dispute arose between my client and the subcontractor coating the steel regarding price and claimed extras and the subcontractor asserted a construction lien in relation to the steel already delivered to the project site and a possessory lien under section 3 of the Repair and Storage Liens Act (RSLA) over the steel still in the subcontractor’s possession.

In my view, the subcontractor’s invocation of the RSLA to assert a possessory lien over the steel in its possession (effectively holding my client’s steel hostage until my client posted security with the Court to secure its release) was a twisted and tortured application of legislation ostensibly designed to provide security to an unpaid “repairer” who had fixed a sailboat or a car or a wristwatch or some other widget (you get the idea).  However, the definitions of “article”, “repair”, and “repairer” under the RSLA are so expansive that, at least at first blush, it can be argued to apply to individual items (i.e. steel) in the manufacturing process.  The relevant definitions are:

“article” means an item of tangible personal property other than a fixture;

“repair” means an expenditure of money on, or the application of labour, skill or materials to, an article for the purpose of altering, improving or restoring its properties or maintaining its condition and includes,

(a) the transportation of the article for purpose of making a repair,

(b) the towing of an article,

(c) the salvage of an article;

“repairer” means a person who makes a repair on the understanding that the person will be paid for the repair;

As you can see, these definitions are extremely broad and almost any item is capable of being an “article” and almost anything that someone can do to that item (with the expectation of compensation or profit) can be considered a “repair”.  The real pinch, though, is just how powerful (and some might say draconian) the RSLA is – without getting into the fine legal details, it gives the party asserting the possessory lien the ability to hold the item(s) hostage, name its price, and barring early and expensive court challenge or the posting of security, sell the item(s) without any trial or court Order.  No other statute in Ontario, that I’m aware of, gives a self-declared creditor that kind of power without any kind of pre-execution/pre-sale judicial process.

Realistically, this apparent potential for misapplication of the RSLA in the manufacturing/construction process is not likely to have a frequent or significant effect on the general construction industry – the problem my client ran into with the RSLA can only practically arise when Party A delivers its own material to party B for Party B to “alter” or “improve” that material and then a dispute arises between Party A and Party B while Party B still has Party A’s “articles” in its possession.  This is where Party B can hold Party A’s own material hostage to extract payment (or the posting of security) for Party A to secure its release.  In the more common scenario where Party A is paying Party B money to build or “alter” or “improve” Party B’s own material, the RSLA doesn’t really work because Party B would simply be refusing to release its own material to Party A – doesn’t pack quite the same punch.

If your business (or that of one of your clients if you are a lawyer or professional advisor) involves delivering materials to someone else for them to be altered or improved, beware the RSLA.  Where this is the case, the RSLA permits the parties to contract out of the repairer’s right to a possessory lien (the opening words of section 3) and doing so should be given some very serious consideration.

Legistative Amendment Required – Posting security to clear a “common element” related lien from an individual condominium unit should be easier

I recently learned that, when it comes to securing the release of a construction lien for work done to the common elements from an individual condominium unit by paying security into Court, the Ontario Construction Lien Act and the Ontario Condominium Act don’t play particularly well together.  The problem is that neither piece of legislation has a clear and express mechanism for the owner of a condominium unit to pay money into Court as security to clear title to the unit where a construction lien attaches to the unit but arises from work done to the common elements of the condominium corporation.

Where the work is done to an individual unit (i.e. a kitchen renovation) and the construction lien is registered against that unit, section 44(1) of the Construction Lien Act provides a simple mechanism for the owner to clear title (to sell or refinance, for example).  However, the Construction Lien Act provides no such simple mechanism where the work was done to the common elements (i.e. a roof replacement or elevator repair) and the contractor and its subcontractors have registered the full value of their alleged liens against title to all of the units comprising the condominium corporation.

I had occasion to argue this issue in Court recently and cobbled together an argument using:

  • sections 11, 13, 14, 18(2), and 23(6) of the Condominium Act;
  • sections 44(2) and 44(4) of the Construction Lien Act; and
  • the Decision of Master Polika in Associated Mechanical Trades Inc. v. Kurzbauer, [2008] O.J. No. 4688 (S.C.J.)

to argue that the proper amount to be posted as security to clear title to individual units should be the unit’s proportionate share of the lien (determined by the unit’s interest in the common elements as established by the declaration) and that same proportion of the unit owner’s potential exposure to the security costs contemplated by section 44(1) of the Construction Lien Act.  The lawyer opposing my motion had a couple of different theories of what security my client ought to post in relation to each unit.  At the end of the day, Mr. Justice Reilly agreed with my argument.  However, if the legislation – either the Condominium Act or the Construction Lien Act – were amended to provide a clear mechanism to address this problem, costly Court hearings such as the one I recently argued could be avoided and it could be as simple to clear title by positing security for condominium units as it is under section 44(1) for non-condominium properties.

On a closing note, the B.C. legislature seems to have recognized this need and provided a solution.  The B.C. equivalent of Ontario’s Condominium Act is the Strata Property Act and its equivalent of Ontario’s Construction Lien Act is the Builders Lien Act.  Under the Strata Property Act, Division 5 of Part 5 (sections 86-90) plus section 166 provides what is pretty much a complete mechanism for an owner of an individual strata lot to remove a builders lien arising from work to common property upon payment into Court of the strata lot owner’s proportionate share of the lien.  I can’t see any good reason why the Ontario legislature shouldn’t follow suit to enact similar provisions in Ontario since this seems to be the combined, though not clearly articulated, intent of sections 11, 13, , 14, 18(2), and 23(6) of the Condominium Act and sections 44(2) and 44(4) of the Construction Lien Act.

Two recent Court Decisions affirming that the Ontario New Home Warranty Plan is for the protection of new home buyers

The courts in Ontario have held, on a number of occasions, that the Ontario New Home Warranties Plan Act (“ONHWPA”) is legislation established to protect and provide additional remedies to buyers of new homes.  These Decisions have normally arisen in the context of disputes between homeowners on one side and their builder and Tarion on the other.  Two interesting Decisions recently came down from the Ontario Court of Appeal that have, albeit in a completely different context, affirmed that the ONHWPA is remedial, consumer protection legislation. The first of these Decisions is Tarion Warranty Corporation v. Boros, 2011 ONCA 374 (CanLII) (leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada refused) and the second is Tarion Warranty Corporation v. Kozy, 2011 ONCA 795 (CanLII).  In both cases, the issue before the Court of Appeal was whether the homebuilders were “builders” under the ONHWPA such that they were caught by the registration (and other) requirements of the legislation.

From a residential builder’s perspective, these cases are primarily of significance because there is now clear and strong authority that the ONHWPA can’t be circumvented or avoided by simply leaving a small portion of construction out of the contract for the buyer to complete.

From a homeowner’s perspective, there are two noteworthy things about these cases:

  1. I believe that this is the first time the Ontario Court of Appeal has so clearly and unequivocally affirmed that the ONHWPA is remedial consumer protection legislation and that it is to be interpreted broadly and liberally as such; and
  2. Under the circumstances of these cases, it appears to have been Tarion, not new homeowners, arguing for this purposive, broad, and liberal interpretation of the ONHWPA.

It will be very interesting to see what the courts do with this purposive, broad, and liberal interpretation of the ONHWPA (and Tarion’s corresponding purpose and obligations) when a good case comes along within which to test and question how Tarion assesses and handles homeowners’ claims regarding deficiencies and “unauthorized substitutions”.  Having read many, many License Appeal Tribunal and court Decisions, I’ve yet to see one that gives a comprehensive and satisfactory treatment on this important aspect of the warranty.

Tarion providing protection to Ontario’s new homebuyers?

I watched an interesting little piece on CTV’s W5 last night that dealt with several Ontario homeowners’ difficulties surrounding the heating systems installed in their new homes and their frustration in dealing with Tarion.  Click here for a link to the online article on the same piece.

Tarion provides and administers Ontario’s mandatory new home warranty program under the Ontario New Home Warranties Plan Act (“ONHWPA”) and its regulations.   Based on the W5 story and others I’ve seen, Tarion still seems to be really struggling with the concept that the ONHWPA is consumer protection legislation and that, as such, protecting homeowners is Tarion’s primary (if not sole) mandate.  There have been at least a couple of cases decided by the Ontario Courts where the Court has expressly stated that the ONHWPA is consumer protection legislation and yet the piece on W5 is just the most recent of many, many stories and articles in the media telling a very similar story.  The message – even when delivered by the Courts – just doesn’t seem to be getting through.

I’m skeptical by nature and, a few years ago, I might have chalked these media stories about problems with Tarion up to whiny homeowners and/or overzealous reporters. However, as the purchaser of two (consecutive) new homes in the last four years, I’ve had the personal displeasure of tangling with Tarion not once, but twice.  I won’t bore you with the details but I will tell you that, with both houses, I had several substantial and legitimate deficiencies that Tarion deemed “Not Warranted”.  If you’ve ever received a Warranty Assessment Report from Tarion, you will be entirely too familiar with these two words.  I’ve been litigating construction deficiency claims for more than a decade and I have a pretty good sense for what should be covered by a warranty and what probably isn’t.  Tarion knew I was a construction lawyer and I was still treated by Tarion as though I had no idea what I was talking about and would just placidly accept its patently wrong decisions.  It was a real eye-opener and I remember feeling extremely sympathetic to folks that are trying in vain to get help from Tarion and don’t have the skills or resources to take Tarion to task when it determines some of their very legitimate complaints to be “Not Warranted”.

Seeing this W5 story has renewed my interest in trying to help to educate homeowners and I will, in the near future, post some information here that Ontario homeowners dealing with Tarion might find helpful.

“Recent” amendments to the Ontario Construction Lien Act

In the age of Twitter and electronic media, it’s old news by now (the last of the amendments came into force last summer) but, in the interest of one-stop-shopping, I figured I ought to throw up a brief post summarizing the “recent” amendments to the  Construction Lien Act.

Definition of “improvement”

The definition of  “improvement” at section 1 of the Construction Lien Act has been amended and now expressly includes the installation of industrial, mechanical, electrical or other equipment on the land where the equipment is essential to the normal or intended use of the land.

It will be very interesting (for construction law nerds like myself, anyway) to see how far the courts will go in extending lien rights to installed equipment.  See my other post on this here.

Condominiums

Under this amendment (new section 33.1 of the Construction Lien Act), condominium developers will be required to publish notice of their intention to register the condominium declaration in accordance with the Condominium Act in a construction trade newspaper (the Daily Commercial News) five to fifteen days prior to registration.

This amendment will provide unpaid persons having liens notice of the pending registration of the condominium declaration so that they can preserve their lien rights before the lands and premises are legally divided into separate condominium units and title is transferred to homebuyers.

Prior to the registration of the declaration, the condominium improvement can be liened in the normal manner, even if the work of the person having a lien is to parts of the project which, after registration of the declaration, will be common elements. This amendment will provide an opportunity to avoid the much more expensive and time consuming requirement of liening the common elements of a condominium after the declaration has been registered.

Check out one of my colleague’s comments on this change here.

Affidavit of Verification

Prior to these amendments (to sections 34 and 40(1) of the Construction Lien Act), a claim for lien had to be verified by an Affidavit of Verification which was typically sworn by the lien claimant. In an effort to keep pace (or at least not fall out of sight) with the new(ish) electronic registration system for land titles documents, verifying a claim for lien by Affidavit will no longer be required.

Also, instead of cross-examining the deponent of the Affidavit of Verification, the lien claimant, the agent or assignee of the lien claimant, or a trustee of the workers’ trust fund (as the case may be) will be subject to cross examination.

Sheltered Liens

Under these amendments (to sections 44(9) and 47(2) of the Construction Lien Act), a lien claimant whose lien is sheltered under a certificate of action that has been vacated from title by Court Order will still be able to proceed with an action to enforce its sheltered lien as if the Order to vacate had not been made.

These amendments were introduced to facilitate the vacating of liens by Court Order while, at the same time, protecting the rights of sheltered lien claimants.

Still waiting to see what the Court does with the new definition of “improvement” under the Construction Lien Act?

In 2010, the Ontario Legislature passed the Open for Business Act, 2010, which included several changes to the Construction Lien Act.  When I learned of the coming amendments, the one that interested me the most was an amendment to the definition of what is an “improvement” under the Construction Lien Act.

In 2007 (and under the former definition), the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a trial judge’s ruling that the transporter and installer of a 100,000 square-foot, 500,000 ton automotive assembly line (built off-site, disassembled, transported, reassembled on-site, and fastened to the building with 2,000 to 3,000 bolts) did not have lien rights, because the installation of the assembly line did not fall within the old definition of an “improvement” as it was “portable”.  The Court of Appeal refused to interfere with the trial judge’s finding that the assembly line was portable and the appeal was dismissed.  I’m not kidding. (See Kennedy Electric Limited v. Dana Canada Corporation, 2007 ONCA 664 (CanLII) and Kennedy Electric Ltd. v. Rumble Automation Inc., 2004 CanLII 47787 (ON S.C.)).

The construction industry (and more than a lawyer or two) was surprised by the Court’s interpretation and so too, it seems, did the Ontario Legislature disapprove because the definition of “improvement” at section 1 of the Construction Lien Act was amended to now expressly include the installation of industrial, mechanical, electrical or other equipment on the land/building/structure/works where the equipment is essential to the normal or intended use of the land/building/structure/works.

This amendment came into force in October, 2010 and I’ve been keeping an eye on the reported caselaw but have yet to see a decision that gives a meaningful interpretation to the new definition and that tests the boundaries of what sort of “other equipment” might constitute an improvement and what “essential to the normal or intended use” means. At one extreme, the new definition could be interpreted to extend to, for example, dishwashers or water softeners installed in homes. At the other extreme, the Courts might be more conservative and the new definition might be fairly narrowly applied to large scale, purpose built equipment (like the equipment in the Kennedy Electric case).  It’s something to think about.  As soon as I see something on this, I’ll put something up here.