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Jean Coutu: SCC Revises Test for Rectification under the Civil Code

On December 9, 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered its judgment in Jean Coutu Group (PJC) Inc. v Attorney General of Canada (2016 SCC 55) along with its companion case Canada (Attorney General) v Fairmont Hotels Inc. (2016 SCC 56).

Our post on the Court’s decision in Fairmont Hotels is available here.

In Jean Coutu, a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court specified and enhanced the civil law test applicable to rectification of a written instrument where the taxpayer has suffered an unintended and adverse tax result. The Court had previously addressed this test in Quebec (Agence du revenu) v Services Environnementaux AES Inc. (2013 SCC 65).

The Supreme Court confirmed that a general intention of tax neutrality does not permit the modification instruments in accordance with the Civil Code of Quebec.

In Jean-Coutu, the taxpayer brought a motion for rectification in the Superior Court of Quebec in order to modify certain documents for transactions that were undertaken to neutralize the effect of the fluctuations in foreign exchange rates. The transactions had achieved this goal, but such transactions had the unexpected and adverse effect of creating foreign accrual property income for one of the companies in the corporate group.

The taxpayer argued that the constant and clear intention of the parties to address the exchange rate fluctuation without generating adverse tax consequences was not reflected in the transaction documents.

The Quebec Superior Court allowed the taxpayer’s motion on the basis that the evidence showed there was discrepancy between the clear intention of the parties and the tax consequence of the transaction as executed.

The Quebec Court of Appeal allowed the Crown’s appeal and stated that the taxpayer’s general intent that its transactions be completed in a tax-neutral manner was insufficient to support a motion for rectification.

On appeal, the Supreme Court defined the issue as follows:

[14] This appeal raises the following key issue: Where parties agree to undertake one or several transactions with a general intention that tax consequences thereof be neutral, but where unintended and unforeseen tax consequences result, does art. 1425 C.C.Q. allow the written documents recording and implementing their agreement to be amended with retroactive effect to make them consistent with that intention of tax neutrality?

In its analysis, the Court applied and confirmed the guidelines it developed in Services Environnementaux AES Inc.

Pursuant to an exhaustive review of the provisions of the Civil Code of Quebec applicable to contracts, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that under the Quebec civil law the agrement or contract lies in the common intention of the parties. A contract is created by “an agreement of wills by which one or several persons obligate themselves to one or several other persons to perform a prestation” (see Article 1378 of the C.C.Q.), which prestation must be “possible and determinate or determinable” (see Article 1378 of the C.C.Q.), and must have a cause (see Article 1410 of the C.C.Q.) and an object (see Article 1412 of the C.C.Q.).

For the majority, Justice Wagner stated that, in light of these provisions of the Civil Code of Quebec, a court may not use the remedy offered by article 1425 C.C.Q. to modify a transactional scheme because it generated unforeseen adverse tax consequences. The Court stated:

[23] A taxpayer’s general intention of tax neutrality cannot form the object of a contract within the meaning of art. 1412 C.C.Q., because it is insufficiently precise. It entails no sufficiently precise agreed-on juridical operation. Nor can such a general intention in itself relate to prestations that are determinate or determinable within the meaning of art. 1373 C.C.Q. It says nothing about what one party is bound to do or not to do for the benefit of the other. Therefore, a general intention of tax neutrality, in the absence of a precise juridical operation and a determinate or determinable prestation or prestations, cannot give rise to a common intention that would form part of the original agreement (negotium) and serve as a basis for modifying the written documents expressing that agreement (instrumentum). As a result, art. 1425 C.C.Q. cannot be relied on to give effect to a general intention of tax neutrality where the writings recording the contracting parties’ common intention produce unintended and unforeseen tax consequences.

And specifying the applicable test developed in Services Environnementaux AES Inc., the Court stated:

[24] In my opinion, when unintended tax consequences result from a contract whose desired consequences, whether in whole or in part, are tax avoidance, deferral or minimization, amendments to the expression of the agreement in accordance with art. 1425 C.C.Q. can be available only under two conditions. First, if the unintended tax consequences were originally and specifically sought to be avoided, through sufficiently precise obligations which objects, the prestation to execute, are determinate or determinable; and second, when the obligations, if properly expressed and the corresponding prestations, if properly executed, would have succeeded in doing so. This is because contractual interpretation focuses on what the contracting parties actually agreed to do, not on what their motivations were in entering into an agreement or the consequences they intended it to have.

Furthermore, the Court distinguished Jean Coutu from Services Environnementaux AES Inc.:

[31] In contrast, in the appeal here, the parties to the contract did not originally and specifically agree upon a juridical operation for the purpose of turning their general intention to neutralize tax consequences into a series of specific obligations and prestations. This general intention of the parties was not sufficiently precise to establish the details of a contemplated operation […] The determinate scenario agreed on by PJC Canada and PJC USA was drawn up properly, but because it was drawn up properly, it produced unintended and unforeseen tax consequences.

The Court dismissed the taxpayer’s appeal and affirmed the decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal.

In dissent, Justice Côté stated that the convergence of principles between the common law and the civil law as expressed by the majority in Jean Coutu was inconsistent with the contract law applicable in Quebec:

[91] […] I agree with my colleague that convergence between Quebec civil law and the common law of the other provinces is desirable from a tax policy perspective (para. 52). Indeed, in this Court, the parties agreed that the common law and the civil law are functionally similar with respect to the availability of rectification. But retreating from the interpretation of art. 1425 C.C.Q. adopted in AES in order to achieve harmony with this Court’s contraction of equitable discretion in Fairmont is inconsistent with the law of contract in Quebec.. […] Given that contracts can be expressed orally without recourse to written instruments, AES left open the possibility of rectifying errors in oral expression (paras. 28 and 32). This is consistent with the civil law principle, inherent in arts. 1378 and 1425 C.C.Q., that a contract is based on the common intention of the parties, not on the expression of that intention.

[92] The majority’s reasons in Fairmont are irreconcilable with these articles of the Code. Rectification in Canadian common law jurisdictions in now “limited to cases where the agreement between the parties was not correctly recorded in the instrument that became the final expression of their agreement” (Fairmont, at para. 3). There appears to be no scope for rectifying oral agreements. With respect, to the extent that my colleague in this case would import this limitation into the civil law, the “convergence” between the two legal systems is, in my opinion, far from “natural” (majority reasons, at para. 52).

The decision rendered by the Supreme Court in Jean Coutu is of significant importance as it restricts the circumstances in which taxpayers may rely on Article 1425 of the Civil Code to rectify transaction documents in tax cases.

Quebec tax professionals should carefully consider the additional guidelines provided in Jean Coutu in assessing whether or not a motion for rectification is available to correct mistakes resulting in unintended and unforeseen adverse tax consequences.

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Jean Coutu: SCC Revises Test for Rectification under the Civil Code

B.C. Supreme Court Rescinds Land Transfers

In Re 0741508 BC Ltd and 0768723 BC Ltd  (2014 BCSC 1791), the British Columbia Supreme Court (“BCSC”) considered whether rescission should be granted in respect of two real estate transactions in which the applicant corporations had transferred several parcels of land to a partnership.

The transactions were undertaken as part of a proposed commercial development of the land. The parties intended – in accordance with industry practice – that there would be no net GST/HST payable on the land transfers (i.e., the GST/HST payable would be offset by an input tax credit).

However, the partnership was not registered for GST/HST purposes under the Excise Tax Act (“ETA”) and accordingly the input tax credit was not available. The CRA audited members of the corporate group and reassessed nearly $6 million in GST/HST and penalties.

The parties brought an application to the BCSC for rescission of the transfers (i.e., to effectively put the property back in the hands of the selling corporations).

The application was opposed only by the CRA, which argued that rescission should not be available as the mistake in question was not related to the purpose of the transaction but only its consequences. In Gibbon v Mitchell ([1990] 1 W.L.R. 1304 (Ch.), a U.K. court held that rescission would be granted for a mistake where “the mistake is as to the effect of the transaction itself and not merely as to its consequences or the advantages to be gained by entering into it”. Similar reasoning was followed by the Ontario court in 771225 Ontario Inc. v Bramco Holdings Co Ltd. ([1994] 17 O.R. (3d) 571 (Gen. Div.)), which held that an assessed land transfer tax “was a consequence of the transaction, rather than its purpose, and therefore the case did not fall within the strict confines of the rule for granting relief.”

In considering whether to exercise its discretion to order equitable rescission, the BCSC cited McMaster University v Wilchar Construction Ltd. ([1971] 3 O.R. 801 (H.C.)):

In equity, to admit of correction, mistake need not relate to the essential substance of the contract, and provided that there is mistake as to the promise or as to some material term of the contract, if the Court finds that there has been honest, even though inadvertent, mistake, it will afford relief in any case where it considers that it would be unfair, unjust or unconscionable not to correct it.

In the present case, the BCSC noted that, in Re: Pallen Trust (2014 BCSC 305) the court had rejected Gibbon and instead relied on the test adopted in the U.K. Supreme Court decision in Pitt v Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs ([2013] UKSC 26) to determine whether to rescind a voluntary transaction.

Equitable rescission, under Pallen, would be available where there was a “causative mistake of sufficient gravity” as to the “legal character or nature of the transaction, or as to some matter of fact or law which is basic to the transaction” such that it would be unconscionable, unjust or unfair not to correct the mistake.

The BCSC noted that, in the transactions at hand, the intention of the parties had always been that the partnership would be registered under the ETA so that no net GST/HST would be payable. This was distinguishable from Bramco, where there had never been a specific intention to minimize the applicable tax.

The BCSC reiterated the principle set out in McMaster and Pallen that “if there has been an honest, even though inadvertent mistake, equity will afford relief in any case that the court considers that it would be unfair, unjust, or unconscionable not to correct it” and held that it would be unfair and unjust for either Canada and/or the Province to gain over $6 million plus accruing interest solely because of a mistake in not registering under the ETA.

The BCSC granted the rescission and held that there was “no adequate legal remedy available, the petitioners are not seeking to carry out retroactive tax planning, and there is no prejudice to third parties.”

The Court did not explicitly consider whether the mistake met the threshold of being of sufficient gravity as to the legal character, nature of the transaction, or as to some matter of fact or law which is basic to the transaction.  Presumably, the punitive and negative results of the transaction were sufficiently grave – that is, the mistake about the fact as to whether ETA registration had been completed was sufficiently grave – that the Court found rescission should be granted.

Pallen has been appealed to the B.C. Court of Appeal.  It will be interesting to see if the present case is appealed as well.  Either way, the equitable doctrine of rescission continues to develop in the context of unintended tax consequences.

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B.C. Supreme Court Rescinds Land Transfers

Supreme Court of Canada Considers Two Quebec Rectification Cases

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).

Riopel

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.

*  *  *

As noted above, judgment was reserved in both appeals. We will report on the decisions as soon as they are released.

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Supreme Court of Canada Considers Two Quebec Rectification Cases

More on Rectification in Quebec

Rectification continues to be a topic of heated debate in Quebec. After a series of decisions by the Court of Appeal last year on the subject, the Quebec Superior Court rendered an important judgment on June 19, 2012 (Mac’s Convenience Stores Inc. v. Couche-Tard Inc., 2012 QCCS 2745) on a motion for declaratory judgment involving a well-known Canadian business.

This case is a reminder that rectification is not always available to correct errors made in the planning of a transaction, even if the unintended tax consequences result in a loss of several million dollars for a taxpayer.

The Facts

On April 14, 2005, Mac’s Convenience Store Inc. (“Mac’s”) borrowed $185 million from a U.S. corporation, Sildel Corporation (“Sildel”), which was a “specified non-resident” for purposes of the thin capitalization rules in subsection 18(4) of the Income Tax Act (the “Act”). Under this loan, Mac’s paid interest to Sildel ($911,854 in 2006, $11,069,590 in 2007, and $10,674,247 in 2008). These interest payments were deducted in computing the income of Mac’s for income tax purposes in the relevant years. This loan was fully repaid by Mac’s in 2008.

On April 25, 2006, Mac’s declared and paid a dividend of $136 million to Couche-Tard Inc. (“CTI”) out of its retained earnings. The decision to declare this dividend was taken after consultation with professional advisers.

More than 18 months later, it was discovered that the dividend of $136 million paid to CTI had the effect of raising the “debt” portion of Mac’s debt-to-equity ratio vis-a-vis Sildel for thin capitalization purposes beyond the then statutory limit of 2:1 under subsection 18(4) of the Act. In early 2008, Mac’s notified the CRA of the situation. After conducting an audit, the CRA issued notices of reassessment to Mac’s denying the deduction of all the interest it paid to Sildel during taxation years 2006, 2007, and 2008.

Mac’s filed a motion for declaratory judgment with the Quebec Superior Court requesting that the dividend of $136 million declared on April 25, 2006 and paid to the respondent CTI be cancelled retroactively and replaced by a reduction of Mac’s paid-up capital in the same amount. This rectification would have required no transfer of funds between the parties, but it would have allowed Mac’s to deduct the interest paid to Sildel in computing Mac’s income under the thin capitalization rules.

To read the full article, click here.

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More on Rectification in Quebec