October 21, 2012
In Southcott Estates Inc. v. Toronto Catholic District School Board, 2012 SCC 51, the Supreme Court of Canada considered whether a plaintiff in a case involving a failed real estate transaction was excused from mitigating its losses on the basis that it had made a claim for specific performance.
Although the Court recognized that a plaintiff’s refusal to mitigate may be reasonable if the plaintiff had a “substantial justification” or a “substantial and legitimate interest” in specific performance, the Court held that the plaintiff had no such interest because the property was intended as an investment and had no peculiar or special value to the plaintiff.
The plaintiff, Southcott Estates Inc. (“Southcott”) was a single-purpose company incorporated solely for the purpose of a specific land purchase. It had no assets other than money advanced to it by its parent company for the deposit relating to the land purchase.
Southcott entered into an agreement of purchase and sale for a specific property with the defendant, the Toronto Catholic District School Board (the “Board”). When the Board failed to satisfy a condition and refused to extend the closing date, Southcott brought a claim for specific performance of the contract, and argued that it was not required to mitigate its losses by purchasing a different property.
The trial judge refused to award Southcott specific performance and, instead, awarded damages to Southcott. On appeal, the Court of Appeal concluded that the Board had breached its contractual obligations, but that Southcott had failed to take available steps to mitigate its losses. As a result, the Court of Appeal reduced Southcott’s damage award to a nominal sum.
The key issue on appeal was whether a plaintiff must mitigate its losses where the plaintiff has made a claim for specific performance.
The majority reasons, penned by Madam Justice Karakatsanis, recognized that “there may be situations in which a plaintiff’s inaction is justifiable notwithstanding its failure to obtain an order for specific performance.” In particular, “[i]f the plaintiff has a ‘substantial justification’ or a ‘substantial and legitimate interest’ in specific performance, its refusal to purchase other property may be reasonable, depending upon the circumstances of the case”.
In the Court’s view, this was not a case where the plaintiff could reasonably refuse to mitigate. The Court began by observing that “[a] plaintiff deprived of an investment property does not have a “fair, real, and substantial justification” or a “substantial and legitimate” interest in specific performance unless he can show that money is not a complete remedy because the land has “a peculiar and special value” to him. In this case, Southcott had no “substantial and legitimate” interest in specific performance because the land had no peculiar or special value to it. Rather, Southcott had simply “engaged in a commercial transaction for the purpose of making a profit”, such that “[t]he property’s particular qualities were only of value due to their ability to further profitability.”
As a result, the Court held that Southcott owed a duty to mitigate its damages by purchasing an alternative property, notwithstanding its specific performance claim.
In light of the decision, a plaintiff with a claim of specific performance must carefully evaluate the strengths and weakness of its claim. If a plaintiff chooses to pursue its claim of specific performance and declines to mitigate its losses in the interim by buying an alternative property, the plaintiff must be prepared to suffer a reduction in its damage award in the event that a court rejects its claim of specific performance and finds that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to mitigate its losses.