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Equity - Relief from Forfeiture

Contract - Deposits - Forfeiture

Contract - Unconscionability

Redstone Enterprises Ltd. v. Simple Technology Inc (Ont CA, 2017)

Here the Court of Appeal sets out the considerations involved in determining whether a contractual deposit may be forfeited and when statutory (CJA) relief from forfeiture may be granted, here focussing particularly on the issue of unconscionability:
[15] Section 98 of the Courts of Justice Act provides simply that: “A court may grant relief against penalties and forfeitures, on such terms as to compensation or otherwise as are considered just.” The application judge referred to Varajao in specifying the two steps of the test as:

1. whether the forfeited deposit was out of all proportion to the damages suffered, and

2. whether it would be unconscionable for the seller to retain the deposit.

This is sometimes referred to as the test in Stockloser v. Johnson, [1954] 1 Q.B. 476 (C.A.). .....

.....

(2) Is the Forfeiture Unconscionable?

[18] The analysis of unconscionability requires the court to step back and consider the full commercial context.

[19] Deposits are commonplace in the operation of the market, especially for larger assets such as residential and commercial real estate. Their purpose was explored at learned length by Newbury J.A. speaking for a five-person panel in Tang v. Zhang, 2013 BCCA 52 (CanLII), 359 D.L.R. (4th) 104. At issue in the case was the forfeiture of a deposit of $100,000 on a residential real estate purchase of slightly more than $2 million. The trial judge relieved against forfeiture on the basis that the vendor had been able to re-sell the property for more than the original purchase price so that he had not suffered any loss. The court of appeal reversed the trial decision.

[20] While Newbury J.A. rejected the argument that simply labelling a payment as a deposit immunized it against the court’s equitable jurisdiction to relieve from forfeiture, she declined relief. She distilled several relevant principles from English and Canadian case law, at para. 30. Two are especially pertinent to this appeal:
A true deposit is an ancient invention of the law designed to motivate contracting parties to carry through with their bargains. Consistent with its purpose, a deposit is generally forfeited by a buyer who repudiates the contract, and is not dependant on proof of damages by the other party. If the contract is performed, the deposit is applied to the purchase price;

The deposit constitutes an exception to the usual rule that a sum subject to forfeiture on the breach of a contract is an unlawful penalty unless it represents a genuine pre-estimate of damages. However, where the deposit is of such an amount that the seller's retention of it would be penal or unconscionable, the court may relieve against forfeiture….
[21] The decision of this court in Peachtree II Associates-Dallas L.P. v. 857486 Ontario Ltd. (2005), 2005 CanLII 23216 (ON CA), 76 O.R. (3d) 362 (C.A.), leave to appeal refused, [2005] S.C.C.A. No. 420, is instructive, even though it involved stipulated penalty clauses, not deposits. The case explored the distinction between penalties and forfeitures.

[22] Justice Sharpe noted, at paras. 31-32:
[C]ourts should, if at all possible, avoid classifying contractual clauses as penalties and, when faced with a choice between considering stipulated remedies as penalties or forfeitures, favour the latter.

[C]ourts should, whenever possible, favour analysis on the basis of equitable principles and unconscionability over the strict common law rule pertaining to penalty clauses.
Accordingly, he pointed out that: “the strict rule of the common law refusing to enforce penalty clauses should not be extended” (at para. 33). The reason, he explained, is “the policy of upholding freedom of contract” (at para. 34).

[23] Justice Sharpe continued, noting that: “Judicial enthusiasm for the refusal to enforce penalty clauses has waned in the face of a rising recognition of the advantages of allowing parties to define for themselves the consequences of breach” (at para. 34). He cited in support Dickson J., who decried the prohibition of penalties as “blatant interference with freedom of contract”, and advocated treating both penalties and forfeitures under the rubric of unconscionability: Elsley v. J.G. Collins Insurance Agencies Ltd., 1978 CanLII 7 (SCC), [1978] 2 S.C.R. 916 at p. 937, 83 D.L.R. (3d) 1, 1978 CarswellOnt 1235, at para. 47 (WL Can).

[24] The point is well made in Union Eagle Ltd. v. Golden Achievement Ltd., [1997] UKPC 5, [1997] A.C. 514, by Lord Hoffmann for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council said, at p. 519 (A.C.)
[I]n many forms of transaction it is of great importance that if something happens for which the contract has made express provision, the parties should know with certainty that the terms of the contract will be enforced. The existence of an undefined discretion to refuse to enforce the contract on the ground that this would be "unconscionable" is sufficient to create uncertainty. Even if it is most unlikely that a discretion to grant relief will be exercised, its mere existence enables litigation to be employed as a negotiating tactic.
[25] I would agree that the finding of unconscionability must be an exceptional one, strongly compelled on the facts of the case.

[26] Can unconscionability be established purely on the basis of a disproportionality between the damages suffered and the amount forfeited? While in some circumstances a disproportionately large deposit, without more, could be found to be unconscionable, this is not such a case.

[27] As to quantum, Newbury J.A. quoted, at para. 24 of Tang, the statement of the Privy Council in Workers Trust & Merchant Bank Ltd v. Dojap Investments Ltd., [1993] A.C. 573 (P.C.), at p. 578:
In general, a contractual provision which requires one party in the event of his breach of the contract to pay or forfeit a sum of money to the other party is unlawful as being a penalty, unless such provision can be justified as being a payment of liquidated damages, being a genuine pre-estimate of the loss which the innocent party will incur by reason of the breach. One exception to this general rule is the provision for the payment of a deposit by the purchaser on a contract for the sale of land. Ancient law has established that the forfeiture of such a deposit (customarily 10 per cent of the contract price) does not fall within the general rule and can be validly forfeited even though the amount of the deposit bears no reference to the anticipated loss to the vendor flowing from the breach of contract. [Emphasis in Tang.]
[28]Justice Newbury cited one case in which a deposit at 20% was found to be reasonable, but added, at para. 27, the amount of the deposit must not be excessive. I agree, but I would be reluctant to specify a numerical percentage, since much turns on the context. I note, however, that in this case the deposit was slightly more than 7%. There is no evidence that this was a commercially unreasonable deposit.

[29] Where, as here, there is no gross disproportionality in the size of the deposit, the court must consider other indicia of unconscionability. This is an analysis the application judge did not undertake. By failing to do so, the he erred in law.

[30] The list of the indicia of unconscionability is never closed, especially since they are context-specific. But the cases suggest several useful factors such as inequality of bargaining power, a substantially unfair bargain, the relative sophistication of the parties, the existence of bona fide negotiations, the nature of the relationship between the parties, the gravity of the breach, and the conduct of the parties.


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