[author: Jean-Philippe Latreille]
In what circumstances may the Superior Court of Quebec correct a written instrument that does not reflect the parties’ intent? That is the question that was considered by the Supreme Court of Canada on November 8, 2012 on appeals from decisions of the Quebec Court of Appeal in Agence du Revenu du Québec (formerly the Deputy Minister of Revenue of Quebec) v. Services Environnementaux AES Inc., et al. and Agence du Revenu du Québec v. Jean Riopel, et al.
The panel consisted of McLachlin C.J. and LeBel, Fish, Abella, Rothstein, Cromwell and Karakatsanis JJ. The Court reserved judgment in both cases.
Services environnementaux AES Inc.
Centre technologique AES Inc. (“Centre”) was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Services environnementaux AES Inc. (“AES”). In the context of a corporate reorganization, AES decided to sell 25% of its shares in Centre to a new investor. AES and Centre instructed their advisors that there was to be an exchange of shares under section 86 of the Income Tax Act (“ITA”) and the corresponding provisions of the provincial legislation.
AES believed – mistakenly – that the adjusted cost base of its shares in Centre was $1,217,029. Based on that error, a promissory note of $ 1,217,028 was received by AES as part of the consideration for its shares.
Subsequently, AES received a Notice of Reassessment that added a taxable capital gain of $840,770 to its taxable income. The parties discovered that the adjusted cost base of the shares had been miscalculated and that it was, in fact, only $96,001.
AES filed an application in the Superior Court of Quebec for an order rectifying the written instruments for the transactions. The Superior Court granted the application, noting that its judgment was effective as of the date of the transactions and that it was enforceable against third parties (including tax authorities). The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal of the Quebec Revenue Agency (QRA).
The Riopel case is another case about a corporate reorganization gone wrong.
Mr. Riopel was the sole shareholder of a corporation and held a 60% stake in a second corporation. Ms. Archambeault, Mr. Riopel’s wife, held the remaining 40% of the shares in the second corporation. The parties intended to amalgamate the corporations, with Mr. Riopel as the sole remaining shareholder of the amalgamated corporation. Both shareholders met with a tax advisor and agreed on plan for the reorganization. The parties were clear that the reorganization was to be completed with no immediate tax impact.
However, the Articles of Amalgamation included an error (i.e., the Articles did not reflect the correct share ownership). The shareholders’ professional advisors realized the error, and they tried to correct the situation without notifying the taxpayers.
Subsequently, Ms. Archambeault received a Notice of Reassessment adding a deemed dividend of $335,000 to her taxable income. The shareholders and the corporation brought an application in the Superior Court of Quebec to rectify the written instruments to accord with their true intention (i.e., implementing a reorganization without immediate tax effect).
The Superior Court denied the rectification on the basis that the agreement between the parties was distinct from the mandate given to their advisors. The Court suggested that the error could have vitiated the agreement, but it was not the remedy sought by the parties. The Court added that the error affected both the form and substance of the transactions. Accordingly, rectification was not an appropriate remedy.
That decision was reversed by the Court of Appeal of Quebec. The Court of Appeal applied the reasoning in AES and ordered the rectification so as to give effect to the parties’ common intention.
Position of the Tax Authorities in the Supreme Court of Canada (Oral Argument)
In the Supreme Court, counsel for QRA argued that the rectifications obtained by the taxpayers were not an exercise of interpretation of contracts as permitted by the Civil Code of Quebec (“CCQ”). The contracts in question were clear and should not have been modified, even though the transactions had unintended tax consequences for the parties.
Indeed, tax considerations may be the motivation behind a transaction, but they do not reflect the intent of the parties and are therefore not part of the “scope of the contract”. Thus, according to counsel for QRA, the Court of Appeal erred in rectifying the written instruments in order to make them consistent with the parties’ tax motivations. The parties could have sought cancellation of the contracts, but they failed to do so.
Justice LeBel asked if there was a legal principle that would operate to prevent parties from varying or rescinding a contract. Counsel for QRA responded that there was none, but that such a variation or rescission cannot have retroactive effect with respect to third parties. The situation would be different if the contract was cancelled by the Court since the contract is then deemed to never have existed. In such a case, the QRA would respect the decision of the Court and would assess the taxpayer accordingly.
Justice LeBel also asked if the tax authorities are third parties for the purposes of civil law. QRA’s position is that they are third parties and they have an obligation to apply the law based on the contracts concluded by the taxpayers.
Justice Fish noted that there was no dispute that the parties intended to comply with the provisions of the ITA and that, in this case, they had failed to do so because of human error. Counsel for QRA replied that the only relevant intent was in respect of the actual terms of the contract and not the tax motivation. The CCQ does not operate to vary clear contractual provisions so as to conform to the parties’ tax motivation. A possible remedy would have been the cancellation of the contracts, but that was not what the parties sought.
Counsel for the Attorney General of Canada essentially took the same position. Counsel explained that a party (or parties) cannot rewrite the history of a transaction because of unexpected tax consequences. Counsel emphasized that a distinction must be drawn between the motivation of the parties and the object of the contract. He added that the courts have long recognized that a “mistake in assumption” does not warrant the rectification of a contract. This applies in both common law and civil law.
Position of AES in the Supreme Court of Canada (Oral Argument)
Counsel argued that AES did not ask the Superior Court to modify a contract, but rather to rectify a written instrument to accord with the parties’ common intention in order to reflect the true legal relationship. In this case, the parties intended to complete the transaction in accordance with section 86 of the ITA but the written instrument did not reflect this intention. Accordingly, it was legitimate and necessary for the Superior Court to order rectification.
Justice LeBel asked about the impact of the law of evidence in the context of an application for rectification (i.e., the parol evidence rule). Counsel responded that the restrictions on presenting evidence of a party’s intent did not apply in this case since it has been admitted that the parties’ intention was not correctly reflected in the written document.
Justice LeBel also asked if it was AES’s position that a tax authority is a third party to a contract. Counsel stated that a government has an obligation to enforce tax law based on bona fide legal relationships between the parties. A tax authority would not be a third party because it would have no rights to claim with respect to the rectification of a written instrument. However, on a practical level, it may be appropriate to give the tax authorities an opportunity to be heard.
In closing, counsel stated that an application for rectification in Quebec is based solely on the principles of civil law and that it is not an attempt to “import” a common law concept.
Position of Riopel in the Supreme Court of Canada (Oral Argument)
Counsel stated that this was not a tax case but rather a civil law case. The question that must be asked was the following: Where can the contract be found? It is a mistake to confuse the contract with the written document evidencing it.
The Court of Appeal relied on Article 1425 of the CCQ to grant the application for rectification. Indeed, the application met the three criteria developed by the Court of Appeal in AES (i.e., necessity, legitimacy and no harm to third parties). Moreover, even if the tax authorities should be regarded as third parties, they would not be prejudiced because the rectification had no impact on the tax base.
Justice LeBel noted that numerous errors had been committed. Counsel responded that the errors all had a common origin, namely the Articles of Amalgamation. The number of written instruments to be rectified was not relevant, as long as the purpose was to give effect to the parties’ true intention.
Justice LeBel also wondered if this was an exercise of contractual interpretation. Counsel responded that granting rectification is an operation of correction following the interpretation of the parties’ true intention. Just because the provisions of a contract are clear does not mean that they reflect the parties’ intentions.
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As noted above, judgment was reserved in both appeals. We will report on the decisions as soon as they are released.