Taxpayer wins an important and complex case – Tax Court orders CRA to pay 60% of his out-of-pocket costs

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Traditionally in a Tax Court appeal the costs awarded to a successful taxpayer have been no more than a small fraction of the out-of-pocket costs actually incurred in pursuing the appeal. The Court made very rare exceptions in the case of improper or vexatious conduct on the part of CRA. In recent years, however, the Tax Court has shown an increasing willingness to award substantial costs in cases where the taxpayer has been successful on important and novel issues. The recent decision of the Tax Court in Dickie v. The Queen (September 19, 2012) is an important example of how the law is evolving in this area.

In order to understand the implications of the cost award one must briefly examine the background of the underlying tax issue which was reported as Dickie v The Queen (July 10, 2012). The taxpayer was an aboriginal person living on a Reserve. He carried on a substantial business of cutting and slashing timber and brush to permit oil and gas exploration companies to carry out seismic testing. The administrative functions of the business were carried on within the Reserve but the physical activity of the business was carried on almost exclusively outside of the Reserve, generally within an 80 kilometre radius of the Reserve:

[8] While the Appellant clearly negotiated and received accepted contracts for work from the Reserve location, it is clear that 99% of the work was conducted off Reserve, within an 80-kilometre radius of the Reserve. In 2003, the Appellant had over 140 workers engaged for his Business and had revenue of approximately $3.4 million. The Appellant testified he hired mainly aboriginal workers, 16 in all from the Reserve, and others from Reserves in other parts of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and even as far away as Newfoundland and Labrador. In all, the evidence is that approximately 105 of the 140 workers were aboriginal workers.

[9] The Appellant testified that the Business would bid on between 20 to 25 tenders a year and was usually successful 20% of the time, hence was awarded four to five contract bids a year. He also testified a small portion of the work of the Business was from small job requests but that the great majority of the Appellant’s Business revenue was from the larger bid contracts. The evidence is clear that all of the clients of the Business, generally oil and gas exploration or distribution companies, were not located or based on the Reserve and in fact most were based in Calgary, Alberta, the place of their office. The Appellant also testified that in 2003 the Business was a competitive one, evidenced also by the fact he was only successful on 20% of his bids.

The taxpayer claimed that his income was exempt for taxation by virtue of paragraph 81(1)(a) of the Income Tax Act:

81(1) There shall not be included in computing the income of a taxpayer for a taxation year,

(a) statutory exemptions [including Indians] – an amount that is declared to be exempt from income tax by any other enactment of Parliament, other than an amount received or receivable by an individual that is exempt by virtue of a provision contained in a tax convention or agreement with another country that has the force of law in Canada; . . .

Traditionally the courts construed this exemption somewhat narrowly placing significant emphasis on physical connection to the reserve and displaying a certain reluctance to apply the exemption to activities in the commercial mainstream.

Two recent decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada, Bastien Estate v. Canada, 2011 SCC 38, [2011] 2 S.C.R. 710 and Dubé v. Canada, 2011 SCC 39, [2011] 2 S.C.R. 764, substantially changed the law in this area. In a nutshell they held that the commercial mainstream test should no longer carry the degree of weight it had historically:

[21] Cromwell J. made it clear that the expression “Indian qua Indian” referred to by La Forest J. and Gonthier J. in Williams does not mean one can import into the purpose of the legislation “an effort to preserve the traditional way of life in Indian communities” or consider as a relevant factor “whether the investment income benefits the traditional Native way of life”. While Cromwell J. found that he did not read the judgments in Mitchell or Williams “as departing from a focus on the location of the property in question when applying the tax exemption”, he also found that neither decision mandated an approach that assessed what is in fact, to use the parlance of the Appellant here, the “Indianness” of the activity. In paragraph 27 of Bastien Estate, Cromwell J. stated:

[27] . . . A purposive interpretation goes too far if it substitutes for the inquiry into the location of the property mandated by the statute an assessment of what does or does not constitute an “Indian” way of life on a reserve. . . .

[22] And in paragraph 28 stated:

[28] . . ., a purposive interpretation of the exemption does not require that the evolution of that way of life should be impeded. Rather, the comments in both Mitchell and Williams in relation to the protection of property which Indians hold qua Indians should be read in relation to the need to establish a connection between the property and the reserve such that it may be said that the property is situated there for the purposes of the Indian Act. While the relationship between property and life on the reserve may in some cases be a factor tending to strengthen or weaken the connection between the property and the reserve, the availability of the exemption does not depend on whether the property is integral to the life of the reserve or to the preservation of the traditional Indian way of life. . .

[23] Likewise Cromwell J. cautioned against elevating considerations of whether the economic activity was in the “commercial mainstream” as a factor of determinative weight in determining the situs of investment income, which he felt was done in Recalma v. Canada, 98 DTC 6238 (F.C.A.) and other decisions of the lower courts, as “problematic” as he stated in paragraph 56 :

[56] . . . because it might be taken as setting up a false opposition between “commercial mainstream” activities and activities on a reserve. Linden J.A. in Folster was alive to this danger when he observed that the use of the term “commercial mainstream” might “… imply, incorrectly, that trade and commerce is somehow foreign to First Nations” (para. 14, note 27). He was also careful to observe in Recalma that the “commercial mainstream” consideration was not a separate test for the determination of the situs of investment property, but an “aid” to be taken into consideration in the analysis of the question (para. 9). Notwithstanding this wise counsel, the “commercial mainstream” consideration has sometimes become a determinative test. . . .

Justice Pizzitelli applied the new test enunciated by the Supreme Court and came to the conclusion that the taxpayer had demonstrated an entitlement to the exemption claimed and made the following direction as to costs:

[74] The appeal is allowed with costs to the Appellant; however, the parties are invited to file written submissions within 30 days as to costs if any of them feel a standard cost award should not stand.

In making his cost award roughly two months later Justice Pizzitelli was critical of CRA’s reliance upon the “commercial mainstream” argument in light of the Bastien and Dubé decisions:

[20] I do however also agree with the Appellant that having regard to the clear wording and intention of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decisions effectively reducing the importance of the commercial mainstream factor, if not obliterating it, that the Respondent could have shortened the proceeding by conceding this fact before trial. While the Respondent’s counsel acknowledged the reduction in weight to be given to the issue in argument at trial, she nonetheless maintained its assumptions in its pleadings regarding the commercial mainstream and argued forcefully that such factor would grant an advantage to aboriginal businesses over non-aboriginal businesses, an argument in my opinion clearly not consistent with the Supreme Court of Canada’s decisions on the issue. As I referred to in my decision, if the other factors are sufficient to establish the income was situate on a Reserve, then any such resulting advantage was acceptable. In my view, the Respondent could have significantly reduced the length of the hearing by conceding the argument before trial on receiving the Appellant’s counsel’s letter. In my view, this matter falls under the heading of Rule 147(h) the denial or the neglect or refusal of any party to admit anything that should have been admitted. In my opinion, the Respondent paid lip service to the Supreme Court of Canada’s decisions on the importance of the commercial mainstream argument yet proceeded to trial on the basis it was one of its strongest arguments.

In the result he awarded the taxpayer 60% of his out-of-pocket costs and 100% of his disbursements claimed:

[26] In my view, having regard to the clear victory of the Appellant in this matter, the sizeable amount of taxes in dispute including for other years for which this case served as a test case, the importance of the commercial mainstream issue in particular and the complexity of the issue in light of the Respondent’s position notwithstanding the Supreme Court of Canada’s decisions in Bastien Estate and Dubé and the amount of work generated for the Appellant as a result of the Respondent’s position on that issue and the importance it continued to give to the commercial mainstream factor as above discussed, which in my view should have been conceded before trial to shorten the trial and narrow the issues, there clearly exist special circumstances justified by the application of factors listed in Rule 147(3) to merit awarding the Appellant costs in excess of the Tariff.

[27] The Appellant asked for between 50 and 75% of solicitor and client costs plus disbursements, consistent with the range of traditional awards cited by author Mark Orkin in the Law of Costs, 2nd ed., Vol. 1 (Aurora: Canada Law Book, 2008) at 2-3 as quoted by Campbell J. in Re Zeller Estate above at paragraph 9. The Appellant’s costs on a solicitor and client basis claimed are $133,000 plus $10,000 in disbursements. In my opinion, the Appellant is deserving of 60% of such claim, amounting to $80,000 plus $10,000 in disbursements, for a total award of $90,000.

While the background of this case is somewhat uncommon, the issues it presents occur frequently in serious commercial tax litigation: important, novel issues involving a great deal of tax. When this is combined with a stubborn refusal on the part of CRA to acknowledge the obvious weaknesses of some of its arguments, we may begin to see more significant costs awards in the mold of the Dickie decision.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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