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Supreme Court of Canada overturns test regarding summary judgments – Takeaway for employers

On January 23, 2014 the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in Hryniak v. Mauldin, overturning the Ontario Court of Appeal’s test for the appropriateness of summary judgments (Rule 20 of the Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure), and replacing it with a broader test aimed at increasing access to justice throughout Canada. More specifically, the court confirmed that summary judgment rules must be interpreted broadly, favouring proportionality and fair access to the affordable, timely and just adjudication of claims.

To that end, it was confirmed that summary judgment motions must be granted whenever there is no genuine issue requiring a trial. There is no genuine issue requiring a trial when the judge is able to reach a fair and just determination on the merits on a motion for summary judgment, namely, when the process:

  • allows the judge to make the necessary findings of fact;
  • allows the judge to apply the law to the facts; and,
  • is a proportionate, more expeditious and less expensive means to achieve a just result.

Moreover, recently enacted fact-finding powers granted to motion judges in Rule 20.04 may be employed on a motion for summary judgment unless it is in the interest of justice for them to be exercised only at trial. In other words, when the use of the new powers would enable a judge to fairly and justly adjudicate a claim, it will generally not be against the interest of justice to do so. When the motion judge exercises these fact-finding powers, this is a question of mixed fact and law which should not be overturned, absent palpable and overriding error. The decision to even use these powers is owed deference.

How does this work practically?

On a motion for summary judgment under Rule 20.04, the judge should first determine if there is a genuine issue requiring trial based only on the evidence without using the fact-finding powers. Simply put, there is no genuine issue requiring a trial if the summary judgment process provides the judge with the evidence required to fairly and justly adjudicate the dispute in a timely, affordable and proportionate manner.

On the other hand, if there appears to be a genuine issue requiring a trial, the judge should then determine if the need for a trial can be avoided by using the fact-finding powers under Rules 20.04(2.1) and (2.2). Using these rules will not be against the interest of justice if they will lead to a fair and just result and will serve the goals of timeliness, affordability and proportionality in light of the litigation as a whole.

Why is this important?

Unsuccessful summary judgment motions add to costs and delay. The judge must be able to use the insight gained from hearing the summary judgment motion to craft a trial procedure that will resolve the dispute in a way that is sensitive to the complexity and importance of the issue, the amount involved in the case, and the effort expended on the failed motion. It is important to note that, where a motion judge dismisses a motion for summary judgment, in the absence of compelling reasons to the contrary, that judge is seized of the matter as the trial judge.

Takeaways for employers

As can be seen, the Supreme Court of Canada has expanded the approach to summary judgment analysis that will affect civil litigation throughout Canada. Where is this more likely to occur in employment law? Summary judgment motions may begin to be used more frequently in employment law cases dealing with wrongful dismissal where there is no allegation of cause; this is because of the parties’ goals to avoid delays and steep costs associated with long trials. Employees may see justice done swiftly without the employer being able to control or slow down the judicial process.

If a case is extremely complicated requiring a detailed analysis of all the evidence, it is less likely to be resolved in a summary judgment motion

Time will tell as to what takes place regarding these new powers of summary judgment motion judges.

Christina Catenacci
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Christina Catenacci

Christina Catenacci, BA, LLB, LLM, was called to the Ontario Bar in 2002 and has since been a member of the Ontario Bar Association. Christina worked as an editor with First Reference between February 2005 and August 2015, working on publications including The Human Resources Advisor (Ontario, Western and Atlantic editions), HRinfodesk discussing topics in Labour and Employment Law. Christina has decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Western Ontario beginning in the fall of 2015. Read more
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