Précis: The Federal Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal and confirmed the trial judgment holding that a Builder’s mortgage secured advances made by the purchaser and that the builder was under an obligation to repay those advances.
Facts: Pursuant to a vessel construction agreement the builder was to retain title to the vessel until delivery to the purchaser and the purchaser was to make periodic payments in the nature of advances to the builder. The advances were to be secured by a continuing first party security interest supported by a mortgage. A current account Builder’s Mortgage was filed in the ship registry in favour of the purchaser. Disputes arose during the course of construction of the vessel with the result that construction ceased and the builder filed a petition in the British Columbia Supreme Court under the Companies Creditors’ Arrangement Act. The plaintiff, a supplier of goods and services to the vessel, also commenced these proceedings in the Federal Court for unpaid invoices and had the vessel arrested. In the B.C. Supreme Court action an order was pronounced on 22 July 2011 providing that any claimant with an in rem claim against the vessel could pursue that claim in the Federal Court. The Federal Court issued an order on 29 August 2011 establishing a process for the filing of in rem claims against the vessel which included a requirement that any claim be described with sufficient particulars so the court could establish whether it was a proper in rem claim and determine its priority. A claim was filed in the Federal Court by the purchaser/mortgagee for repayment of the funds advanced. The plaintiff brought this application for a declaration that the mortgage did not create a lien or charge on the vessel other than to secure delivery of the vessel. If correct, the effect would be that the funds advanced by the purchaser/mortgagee would be excluded from its claim.
At first instance (2013 FC 221), the Prothonotary granted the declaration sought. The Prothonotary said the question of whether there was an obligation under the mortgage that funds advanced be repaid depended on the construction of the vessel construction agreement and mortgage. The Prothonotary held there was no express provision requiring repayment of funds advanced for the construction of the vessel. Despite the mortgage stating it was a “current account” mortgage, the Prothonotary found no evidence that, in fact, an account current was created by the vessel construction agreement which allowed the builder to retain all advances. The Prothonotary found the parties contemplated that all monies advanced would be used in the construction of the vessel and not exist as a fund. The purchaser/mortgagee appealed.
On appeal (2013 FC 1266), the appeal Judge allowed the appeal holding:
(1) The Prothonotary correctly recognized that he was to determine the intent of the parties based on the language of the contract documents and correctly identified the principles of interpretation but failed to properly apply those principles. The purpose of the mortgage was to provide a continuing security interest in the vessel to secure the advances. It was intended to be effective as against third parties and was not limited to securing the delivery of the Vessel. Although the documents did not state the advances were a loan, they did state they would be made “on account”.
(2) Although there was no express requirement for repayment of advances, considering the agreements as a whole and within the factual matrix, there was an implied obligation to repay the advances. With respect to the Prothonotary’s reasoning that the funds advanced were not a loan because they would be used in the construction and not available as a fund, the purpose of any loan is to permit the borrower to spend the monies lent. A commercial absurdity would result if the advanced funds could not be used for the intended purpose and instead had to be set aside to create a fund. The sums advanced comprised the “account current” secured by the mortgage, even in the absence of an explicit reference in the construction agreement. It was not necessary to specify the amount owing or the time of repayment in the mortgage when there was sufficient detail in the construction agreement. It is also difficult to see how the mortgage could be intended to only secure the delivery of the vessel when the construction agreement expressly states it is to create a first priority security interest to secure advances.
(3) In addition, the purchaser has a claim pursuant to s. 22(2) (n) of the Federal Courts Act (which addresses claims arising out of the construction, repair or equipping of a ship), which can be addressed at the priorities hearing.
The plaintiff appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal. There were four issues on appeal, namely:
(1) What is the correct standard of review?
(2) Was the appeal Judge plainly wrong in her interpretation of the agreements?
(3) Was the appeal Judge plainly wrong in concluding there was an implied repayment obligation in the construction agreement?
(4) Did the appeal Judge err in law in her consideration of s. 22(2)(n) of the Federal Courts Act?
Decision: Appeal Dismissed.
(1) The standard of review enunciated in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Apotex Inc., 2011 FCA 34, applies to issues 2 and 3, i.e. whether the appeal Judge was plainly wrong in her interpretation of the agreements and in concluding there was a repayment obligation. The test is whether the appeal Judge “had no grounds to interfere with the Prothonotary’s decision or, in the event such grounds existed, if the Judge’s decision was arrived at on a wrong basis or was plainly wrong”. The proper test for issue 4, is whether the appeal Judge was correct in her conclusions with respect to s. 22(2)(n) of the Federal Courts Act.
(2) In Sattva Corp. v. Creston Moly Corp., 2014 SCC 53, the Supreme Court set out the guiding principles for contractual interpretation to determine the intent of the parties and the scope of their understanding. The contract is to be read as a whole giving the words their ordinary and grammatical meaning consistent with the surrounding circumstances. However, the surrounding circumstances “must never be allowed to overwhelm the words of that agreement” and must consist of “objective evidence of the background and facts”. The court should interpret the contract in accord with sound commercial principles and good business sense and avoid commercial absurdity. The appeal Judge was aware of these principles and applied them in construing the documents. After proper consideration she held the intent of the parties was to secure the advances which were in the nature of a loan. She did not imply a term of repayment. The Prothonotary’s finding that no “account current” was created because the advances were to be used in the vessel construction and not kept in a fund does not withstand scrutiny. It ignores the express wording in the Builder’s Mortgage which refers to an “account current” and would render the mortgage of no force or effect to secure delivery. Moreover, it ignores the essential promise of a builder’s mortgage which is to pay the mortgagee. While the documents may be unclear as to when and how advances are to be repaid, this is not fatal.
(3) The appeal Judge’s conclusion that there was an implied repayment term was an alternative conclusion. As she was correct in her interpretation, this issue need not be considered.
(4) There is no doubt the appeal Judge was correct in concluding that the purchaser had a claim falling within s. 22(2) (n) of the Federal Courts Act. This section provides that the Federal Court has jurisdiction over “any claim arising out of a contract relating to the construction, repair or equipping of a ship”.