Lower court had discretion to determine earning potential after car accident
The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has refused to modify a hearing judge’s imputation of income in an action involving a claim for retroactive spousal support.
In Ranson v. MacIntyre, 2022 NSCA 50, Robert Ranson and Tarra MacIntyre had lived together in a common law relationship for over 16 years. They separated in 2016 and, shortly thereafter, MacIntyre was injured in a motor vehicle accident. She applied for spousal support retroactive to the date of separation.
Applying the Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines (SSAG), the judge ordered support at the high end of the spectrum for an indefinite period. Ranson contested the judge’s order, arguing that the judge misapprehended medical evidence about the nature and extent of MacIntyre’s disability and its impact on her employability. In particular, Ranson asserted that the judge misunderstood the evidence of Macintyre’s physician, Dr. Patel, regarding MacIntyre’s ability to work. As a result, the judge improperly imputed less income to MacIntyre than the evidence would support. Ranson also argued that the judge misunderstood the impact of MacIntyre’s post-separation accident upon the determination of the quantum of support.
Imputation of income
On appeal, Ranson challenged the hearing judge’s decision to impute income to MacIntyre on the basis of 10 hours of employment per week at $12.50 per hour, or $6,734 per year. Ranson asserted that MacIntyre’s employment income-earning potential should be calculated as a 40-hour work week based on Dr. Patel’s evidence. Ranson said the judge disregarded Dr. Patel’s evidence which clearly showed that while MacIntyre could not do physically demanding work, she was nonetheless able to work a 40-hour week in a sedentary role.
The Court of Appeal emphasized that the exercise of imputing income is discretionary and the appellate court will not interfere in the absence of an assertion that such imputation was done arbitrarily. The court found that the hearing judge accepted Dr. Patel’s evidence that MacIntyre could only do sedentary work. In the court’s opinion, “it was within the judge’s discretion to assign a monetary significance to that evidence in terms of how it informed her conclusions about the parties’ incomes, and ultimately, the quantum of support.”
The appeal court further found that the hearing judge took a holistic view of MacIntyre’s circumstances, beyond her health limitations, in determining whether to impute income and how much income to impute. In the court’s opinion the judge’s conclusions were drawn from the available evidence put before her.
Intervening post-separation events
Ranson contended the only health-related employment limitations on MacIntyre were those that arose from the accident that occurred after the parties’ separation and the judge placed too much weight on irrelevant factors.
It was Ranson’s position that the judge failed to consider how the motor vehicle accident should inform the quantification of support. However, in contrast, the court found that the judge’s decision reflected that she did consider how the accident informed the analysis. The judge said in her decision, “I have also considered in my assessment that [MacIntyre] has already received a small monetary settlement in relation to the motor vehicle accident and that matter is now settled.”
The appeal court further found that the hearing judge considered the fact that MacIntyre had health difficulties that pre-existed before the accident, but it was not the only factor upon which the judge based MacIntyre’s entitlement to support, nor the quantum. The court pointed out that the judge’s findings of MacIntyre’s disability was based on her ability to pursue self-sufficiency.
The appeal court concluded that there was no basis upon which to interfere with the judge’s exercise of discretion to impute income and to assess the quantum of support in the manner she did because her conclusions were grounded in the evidence she accepted.