SCC sends clear message in summary judgment decision

The Supreme Court of Canada today issued a pair of rulings that create what some lawyers are calling a “new world order” of summary judgments for major civil suits — potentially opening the floodgates to these kinds of motions.

Both cases — Bruno Appliance and Furniture Inc. v. Hryniak  and Hryniak v. Mauldin — stem from an alleged fraud by Ontario businessman Robert Hryniak, who met with investors and allegedly induced them to put millions of dollars into an investment company he owned. The money disappeared and the investors sued, filing motions for summary judgments, which were granted.

In Ontario, expanded powers to issue summary judgments were only instituted in January 2010, when the province’s Rules for Civil Procedure were amended, and there were serious questions as to when and how they should be applied. Even in this seemingly single instance of fraud, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in favour of summary judgment for the Mauldin Group, but against summary judgment for Bruno Appliance.

The Supreme Court, in any event, upheld both judgments, ruling the appeal court was correct in denying summary judgment for one while allowing it for another. (What separated these cases seems to be evidence in support of inducement — specifically, that Hryniak was not in attendance at the meeting where Bruno Appliance was allegedly induced to invest.)

In spite of differing outcomes, the unanimous ruling, written by Justice Andromache Karakatsanis, provides a clear and ringing endorsement for summary judgment — going as far as promoting a “shift in culture” away from expensive and time-consuming trials and towards swifter and more accessible justice.

“These reforms embody the evolution of summary judgment rules from highly restricted tools used to weed out clearly unmeritorious claims or defences to their current status as a legitimate alternative means for adjudicating and resolving legal disputes.”

“Summary judgment motions provide an opportunity to simplify pre-trial procedures and move the emphasis away from the conventional trial in favour of proportional procedures tailored to the needs of the particular case.”

McCarthy Tétrault LLP’s Sarit Batner represented Hryniak before the appeal court and the SCC. Batner is astounded by the rulings, which she says leaves multi-million-dollar civil suits to the “instinct” of the motions judge — in some ways akin to the kind of evidentiary balancing act that occurs in small-claims court.

“Basically what they're saying is, ‘Listen, if two sides tell you their story and you have enough confidence based on what you see to make a decision . . . you have to come to one. If you read this decision, it's hard to imagine what case requires a trial based on their definition. They've not identified a single kind of case that would ever not be amenable to summary judgment.”

Batner says the rulings essentially leave motion judges to their own devices — and without any true test — when determining whether a case should be granted summary judgment.

“The question really should have been, ‘What about the grey area in the middle?’ How do we know which way to go? How do we know when the summary process is fair enough that we can have sufficient confidence in the outcome? And the Supreme Court of Canada says, ‘Well it's fair enough when it's fair enough.’”

Ultimately, Batner says the rulings had less to do with the case in question, which she says is dealt with in six paragraphs, and more to do with issuing a loud and clear message to the legal profession.

“The real import of this decision — not to my client, who is obviously very disappointed — but to the profession is, we have got to get people access to justice, and we've got to do a better job, and so we really need to make this more accessible.”

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