In a brief but important decision, the Ontario Court of Appeal recently set aside a successful summary judgment motion on the basis that the judge’s reasons did not explain why the motion was being granted.
In Gro-Bark (Ontario) Ltd. v. Eacom Timber Corporation, the parties were engaged in a dispute over the interpretation of a license agreement. The motion judge ruled in the defendant’s favour and granted summary judgment. In his reasons, he stated that:
“I adopt and rely upon the analysis and statements of law contained in paragraphs 24 to 36 inclusive of the defendant’s factum. These paragraphs, in my view, satisfactorily answer the arguments raised by the plaintiffs”.
The Court of Appeal set aside the decision on the basis that the motion judge did not engage in any meaningful analysis of the issues. The court noted that the case required the motion judge to employ principles of contractual interpretation and apply them to the facts. By simply “adopting” paragraphs in the defendant’s factum without explaining them, the judge failed to actually apply any interpretive principles to the circumstances of the case.
It was explained that, even if the judge intended to refer to findings of fact by adopting paragraphs in the factum, his reasons did not explain which evidence was being considered or how the evidence influenced his decision. “In short,” the court stated, “there is simply no explanation for why the motion judge arrived at the conclusion he did”.
The court hinted that the situation may have been different if the findings urged by the defendant (and adopted by the motion judge) were self-evident. However, the evidence presented at the motion was not clear or one-sided. As such, in order to make the necessary findings of fact to grant summary judgment, the evidence required careful examination and the judge was required to explain why he arrived at his conclusion. Since the judge failed to do either of those things, the appeal was allowed.
Interestingly, in granting the appeal, the court held that its decision was not intended to comment one way or another on a subsequent summary judgment motion. Accordingly, even though the summary judgment decision was set aside, it does not preclude the defendant from moving for summary judgment again and this decision would have no effect on the motion.
This decision sheds some meaningful light on a rare ground of appeal. Even if counsel makes a convincing case and succeeds, the decision may still be vulnerable to appeal if the judge fails to explain things adequately.