Estate litigation is full of high emotions and recriminations, usually stemming from decades of family history. As a result, it is not unusual for a client to question their family member’s reason for commencing litigation against them: jealousy and revenge for some long ago slight are usual suspects. However, as litigators, we have to decide carefully how heavily these allegations figure into the proceedings. As the Ontario Court of Appeal recently affirmed, a court will not inquire into a litigant’s private motives in bringing an action unless motive is an essential part of a cause of action or defence.
In Huachangda Canada Holdings Inc. v Solcz Group Inc., 2019 ONCA 649, the underlying claim involved an action for damages arising out of breaches of warranties and fraudulent conduct following a share purchase agreement. In defending against the claim, the vendor alleged that the purchaser’s reason for commencing the claim was not, in fact, a response to genuine wrongs done or damages suffered, but in an effort to obtain an after-the-fact price reduction on the shares and because the purchasers were going through an internal management and liquidity crisis.
The purchaser brought a motion to strike out the portions of the vendor’s defence which spoke to the purchaser’s motivations in bringing the claim. The motion judge found that discussions of an ulterior motive were irrelevant to the causes of action and were therefore frivolous and vexatious under r. 25.11(b) of the Rules of Civil Procedure. As a result, the motion judge struck out the offending statements, without leave to amend. The vendor appealed.
The Court of Appeal upheld the motion judge’s order. In its reasons, the Court of Appeal set out the general principles regarding a litigant’s motivation for commencing a lawsuit:
- A plaintiff’s personal reasons in bringing an action, even if improper, do not in themselves provide a defence to the action and are therefore irrelevant.
- As a result, a court generally will not inquire into a litigant’s private motivations in bringing an action.
- However, a plea of ulterior motive may be permitted where the plea is an essential part of a cause of action or defence, such as in claims of abuse of process or intentional infliction of mental harm.
While the Court of Appeal’s decision dealt with actions in particular, it is nevertheless useful to keep in mind these general principles when deciding when, how, and why a party may call into question the opposing party’s motivations in an application.