B.C. – Arbitration clause in contract of adhesion not unconscionable/against public policy – #772

In Williams v. Amazon.com Inc., 2023 BCCA 314 the Court upheld a partial stay of a proposed class action in favour of arbitration. It found that the Chambers Judge did not err when she concluded that an arbitration clause that formed part of a contract of adhesion was not unconscionable or against public policy. In doing so, the Court distinguished the case from the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Ledcor Construction Ltd. v. Northbridge Indemnity Insurance Co., 2016 SCC 37 (“Ledcor”) on the issue of the applicable standard of review. In Ledcor, the Supreme Court determined that correctness standard applies when reviewing the interpretation of standard form contracts. Here, the British Columbia Court of Appeal found that a deferential standard was applicable because of the highly contextual and fact specific analysis required for determining unconscionability/public policy issues. The fact that a contract of adhesion was involved did not change that conclusion. The Court also distinguished this case from the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Uber Technologies Inc. v. Heller, 2020 SCC 16 (“Uber”), where the Supreme Court found an arbitration clause in a contract of adhesion invalid on the basis of unconscionability and, in concurring reasons, as against public policy. The Court distinguished Uber because of, among other things, the “profound” differences that it noted in the two cases between the arbitration clauses at issue and the vulnerability of the plaintiffs.   

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Ontario – Stay granted: tort claims were in “pith and substance” contractual – #768

In Spasiw et al v. Quality Green Inc. et al, 2023 ONSC 4422, the Court granted the defendants’ motion to stay the action in favour of arbitration in the context of a shareholders dispute. The plaintiffs’ claims of fraudulent misrepresentation and oppression were “closely connected with and related to” the parties’ share purchase agreement and shareholders agreement and in “pith and substance” contractual.. Accordingly, the claims fell within the broad scope of the arbitration clauses contained in the parties’ two agreements. 

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Alberta – Misapplication of separability principle in contract dispute – #762

Gutama Estate v Vital Property Services Inc., 2023 ABKB 436, is NOT an arbitration case and the contract at issue contained no arbitration clause. But bear with me! The case involved the alleged repudiation/termination of a shareholders agreement and the consequences to the rights and obligations of the parties as a result. The question: if the contract was repudiated/terminated, were all the parties’ rights unwound? The Court quoted from Heyman v. Darwins Ltd. (uniset.ca), the leading U.K. decision that established the common law principle of separability of the arbitration clause. The Court described Heyman v Darwins as a case that addresses the operation of an arbitration clause where the contract has come to an end: in circumstances in which the contract-terminating event did not go to the very existence of the contract, “it did not matter how the contract came to be terminated: the contract (including its arbitration clause) had existed, and the arbitration clause continued to operate….” The Court then extrapolated that concept and applied it more broadly: “[i]n other words, pre-existing and engaged contractual rights continued to operate despite the later termination (by whatever means) of the contract”. Applying that reasoning to this case where the shareholders agreement was alleged to have been repudiated or terminated by its own terms, the Court said that any such termination did not,  “eclipse the agreement completely ie render it meaningless for all purposes and at all times… [i]nstead, crystalized rights and obligations would continue.”  In other words, “the parties would be discharged from future obligations, but remain bound by rights and obligations that have accrued through partial performance”. Thus the Court imported part of a uniquely arbitration law principle with a specific public policy purpose, separability, into general contract law.

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British Columbia – Google wins stay of conspiracy claims; plaintiff refuses to arbitrate – #761

In Spark Event Rentals Ltd. v. Google LLC, 2023 BCSC 1115, the BC Supreme Court granted the Google Defendants a stay in favour of arbitration. The Court rejected Spark’s assertion that the applicable arbitration agreement prohibited it from commencing arbitration, and that the entire dispute with Google could not be resolved in arbitration. Spark had also sued affiliates of Apple in the action. Apple applied, unsuccessfully, to stay the action on the basis that it was so intertwined with the claims against Google that it would amount to an abuse of process for the BC litigation to proceed in parallel with an arbitration against Google on the same claims. However, Spark represented to the Court that if its claims against Google were stayed, it would not proceed with an arbitration; accordingly, the Court found that Apple’s stay application was moot. While the Court left the door open to Spark to arbitrate with Google, in effect the arbitration agreement appears to have provided a tactical shield for Google – for now. This may be a case to watch, as Canadian courts have not yet definitively ruled on the availability of joint and several damages from co-conspirators in private litigation under the Competition Act, RSC 1985, c C-34. Another unsettled question that may arise in due course is whether, in these circumstances, a party has a right of contribution and indemnity from a co-conspirator if it is ordered to pay more than its proportional share of damages.

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Ontario – Courts will also enforce agreements in favour of court proceedings – #758

In Eurofins Experchem Laboratories, Inc. v BevCanna Operating Corp., 2023 ONSC 4015, the Court dismissed an application by Defendant BevCanna Operating Corp (“BevCanna”) for a permanent stay of the action or alternatively, a permanent stay of any claims caught by the arbitration clause in the agreement between BevCanna and the Plaintiff, Eurofins Experchem Laboratories, Inc. (“Eurofins”). The Court found that Eurofins’s claim sought recovery of unpaid fees under the parties’ contract, even though it also included claims for breach of fiduciary duty and unjust enrichment. Claims for unpaid fees fell within an exception to the mandatory arbitration clause. It permitted (but did not require) claims for unpaid fees to be brought in the courts. In reaching this conclusion, the Court considered whether the essential character, or pith and substance of the dispute, was covered by the arbitration clause. This focus ensures that parties are held to their agreement and avoids attempts by clever counsel to plead their way around an arbitration clause. 

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Federal – Stay test may vary – no Canadian standard arbitration stay provision – #755

In General Entertainment and Music Inc. v Gold Line Telemanagement Inc., 2023 FCA 148, a  unanimous Federal Court of Appeal (Webb, Rennie, and Locke, JJA) upheld a stay of court proceedings in a copyright and trademark infringement action.  As a result, complicated disputes about party identity will be resolved in the international arbitration, not by the court which heard the motion to stay. The decision underscores a key stay of proceedings principle: complex questions of fact or mixed fact and law relating to arbitral jurisdiction should first be referred to the arbitrator.  This is so even in the absence of a standard statutory stay of proceedings provision, as occurred in this case. Stay considerations differ by jurisdiction and context, domestic or international, and it is not an invariable technical prerequisite that a party must apply for the stay before taking any step in the court proceedings.

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Alberta – Restrictive interpretation of exceptions to stay applications – #754

In 2329716 Alberta Ltd. v Jagroop Randhawa, 2023 ABKB 297, the Court of King’s Bench stayed interim and injunctive relief applications pending a resolution of the parties’ dispute in arbitration. The Court found that the Respondent’s application for interim and injunctive relief related to arbitrable matters covered by the arbitration clause in the parties’ agreement, and that the summary judgment exception in ss. 7(2)(e) of the Alberta Arbitration Act did not apply because: (a) there had been no application for summary judgement; and (b) the Applicant did not attorn to the Court’s jurisdiction by seeking declaratory orders (in a previous proceeding that had been dismissed on procedural grounds) and injunctive relief (at the stay application hearing).

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Ontario – Doctrine of separability cannot apply where contract nonexistent – #749

In Ismail v. First York Holdings Inc., 2023 ONCA 332, the Court of Appeal for Ontario upheld an order denying the appellant’s motion to stay an action in favor of arbitration under s. 7 of the Arbitration Act. The motion judge had denied the order because the motion was based on an arbitration clause in an agreement that was never legally formed. This deprived the alleged arbitration clause of any legal force. This case illustrates one of the rare instances to which the doctrine of separability of the arbitration agreement cannot extend.

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Ontario – Appeal allowed where arbitration agreement “invalid”; Arbitration Act not engaged – #746

In Goberdhan v Knights of Columbus, 2023 ONCA 327, the Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal of an order dismissing the Defendant’s/Appellant’s motion for a stay of proceedings in favour of arbitration. The motion judge found that the contracts containing the arbitration agreements were invalid for lack of consideration. He therefore refused the stay pursuant to s. 7(2)2 of the Ontario Arbitration Act, 1991 SO 1991, c 17. The Plaintiff/Respondent argued that no appeal was permitted under s. 7(6), which prohibits an appeal of a stay decision. The Court of Appeal disagreed and found that because the contracts and the arbitration clauses were invalid, the Arbitration Act,1991, was not engaged and there was no prohibition on appeal. The appeal was dismissed on its merits.

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Alberta – “Participating in” not same as “taking a step in” an arbitration – #745

In Dow Chemical Canada ULC v NOVA Chemicals Corporation, 2023 ABKB 215,  Justice Wooley dismissed an application by Dow Chemical Canada ULC (“Dow”) for an order declaring the invalidity of the arbitration pursuant to Section 47 of the Arbitration Act to enjoin an arbitration between the parties. That provision requires that the  party seeking the order has “not participated in the arbitration.”  The Court found that Dow did participate in the arbitration and the case provides a useful framework for what it means to “participate” in an arbitration.

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