2017 Harvest

2017 Harvest

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Seller's Family's remorse not grounds to set aside farm transaction, says Alberta Court

Several years ago, a young couple purchased farm land from an 86 year old man, a bachelor most of his life (the "Vendor").  The couple had leased the land for a number of years, and paid about $600,000 for two quarter sections (160 acres x 2).  The Vendor's youngest brother more recently commenced an action in the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench on behalf of the Vendor to set aside the land transaction based either on the exercise of undue influence by the purchasers or on the notion that the transaction was unconscionable.  At the time the case was heard, the Vendor was 93 years old and living in a care facility.  He died between the time of the hearing and the release of the Court's decision.

The Vendor's family was upset that the land purchased for $600,000 in 2010 was later appraised at a value of between $1.67 million and $3.9 million.  And, moreover, within two years of purchasing the two quarter sections, the young couple subdivided out a 43-acre parcel and a 79-acre parcel that they then listed for sale at $835,000 and $1.38 million, respectively.

On the issue of undue influence, the Court cited the test set out by the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of Geffen v. Goodman Estate:

What then must a plaintiff establish in order to trigger a presumption of undue influence? In my view, the inquiry should begin with an examination of the relationship between the parties. The first question to be addressed in all cases is whether the potential for domination inheres in the nature of the relationship itself. This test embraces those relationships which equity has already recognized as giving rise to the presumption, such as solicitor and client, parent and child, and guardian and ward, as well as other relationships of dependency which defy easy categorization.
Having established the requisite type of relationship to support the presumption, the next phase of the inquiry involves an examination of the nature of the transaction. When dealing with commercial transactions, I believe that the plaintiff should be obliged to show, in addition to the required relationship between the parties, that the contract worked unfairness either in the sense that he or she was unduly disadvantaged by it or that the defendant was unduly benefited by it. ...
Once the plaintiff has established that the circumstances are such as to trigger the application of the presumption, i.e., that apart from the details of the particular impugned transaction the nature of the relationship between the plaintiff and defendant was such that the potential for influence existed, the onus moves to the defendant to rebut it. As Lord Evershed M.R. stated in Zamet v. Hyman, supra, at p. 938, the plaintiff must be shown to have entered into the transaction as a result of his own "full, free and informed thought". Substantively, this may entail a showing that no actual influence was deployed in the particular transaction, that the plaintiff had independent advice, and so on. Additionally, I agree with those authors who suggest that the magnitude of the disadvantage or benefit is cogent evidence going to the issue of whether influence was exercised[Emphasis added]
[Emphasis added]
The Court found that the relationship between the Vendor and the young couple was not one in which there was potential for domination of the Vendor by the young couple.  Their relationship was one of lessor and lessees, and of friends and neighbours.  The Vendor was not dependent on the young couple, they were not family, there was no position of trust, and the Vendor was not in a position where he had to sell his land for financial reasons.

And even if the Court had found the relationship to be one in which undue influence could be presumed, the Court would not have found that actual undue influence was exerted in this case.  Instead, the Court found that the Vendor was someone who was not coerced into selling his land.  He had no children of his own and had no family who wanted to purchase or farm his land.  He wanted to sell the land and for the land to remain in agricultural use.  He sold the land at what amounted to a discounted price in relation to the actual market value, but the Vendor had expressed his willingness to sell at a discount knowing that the land would remain agricultural.

Of course, very shortly after the young couple purchased the land, they proceeded to apply for consent from the municipality to subdivide the land.  It appears that the young couple had discussed the possibility of subdivision with the Vendor for the purpose of family planning.  The Vendor provided a letter in support of the application and mentioned that the purpose was for "future ranch planning" for the young couple and their three children.  The decision by the young couple to put two parcels up for sale outside their family at a price that far exceeded the original purchase price of the entire two quarters came as a disappointing surprise to the Vendor's family.

However, the Court did not find that this made the transaction between the Vendor and the young couple unconscionable and subject to being set aside.  The Court found that none of the following elements of the test for an unconscionable transaction were satisfied:
1. a grossly unfair and improvident transaction;
2. that the victim lacked independent legal advice or other suitable advice;
3. that there was an overwhelming imbalance in bargaining power caused by the victim's ignorance of business, illiteracy, ignorance of the language of the bargain, blindness, deafness, illness, senility, or similar disability; and
4. that the other party knowingly took advantage of this vulnerability.
Cain v Clarica Life Insurance Company2005 ABCA 437 (CanLII)384 AR 11, at para 32.

The action to set aside the transaction was dismissed.  As the Court noted in conclusion: "seller's remorse, or seller's family's remorse, is not grounds to set aside the transaction".

Read the decision at: Burby v Ball.