Barbieri v Mastronardi: Ontario Court of Appeal Says Judges Must Give Reasons for Legal Conclusions
The Ontario Court of Appeal (ONCA) set aside a lower court ruling earlier this year because the motion judge had failed to give adequate reasons for his decision. In Barbieri v Mastronardi, 2014 ONCA 416 [Barbieri], the Court of Appeal was reviewing a liability finding linked to the sale of residential property. While the court recognized the importance of giving deference to lower courts on their findings of fact, it set aside the motion judge’s finding because the judge’s written decision made it impossible to undertake judicial review of his judgment. In the words of Justices Weiler, Hourigan and Pardu,
[W]e would allow the appeal on the basis that the reasons of the motion judge fail to provide any insight into how his legal conclusion was reached and what facts were relied upon in reaching his conclusion. Accordingly, meaningful appellate review is impossible. (para 4)
In March 2006, Fernando Mastronardi, the appellant, owned a single-family home, which was the property at the centre of this legal dispute. He and a third party entered into a one-year lease agreement for the home. The lease began on April 1, 2006.
In August of that year, the Toronto Police raided the property and discovered a marijuana grow operation in the home’s basement. In September, the City of Toronto issued work orders on the property. The work orders mentioned the grow-op and expressed concern over the house’s safety in terms of its compromised air quality, electrical wiring and structural integrity. The City banned anyone from using or occupying the property until the work orders were lifted.
Mastronardi next commissioned an environmental assessment of the building. That assessment found mould and other problems in the home and suggested repairs. Mastronardi then hired his son’s company to make the repairs. What repairs were performed is unclear, but the City lifted the work orders in February 2007. Mastronardi’s daughter then lived in the home with her two young children for six months. Mastronardi listed the property for sale when his daughter moved out.
Mastronardi and Barbieri entered into an agreement of purchase and sale (APS) for the property on September 5, 2007. The purchase was made with Barbieri’s nephew, Domenic Manno, who was acting under a power of attorney. The transaction closed in November 2007. In September 2008, neighbours told Manno about the property’s history. On March 19, 2009, the respondent Barbieri launched an action against Mastronardi for breach of contract and negligence. The respondent alleged a failure to disclose the history of the property and cited the fact that the property was uninhabitable because of its extensive mould problem. The respondent commissioned an environmental inspection in March 2010. The inspectors found that there was mould in the home and that it needed repairs before it was safe for human occupation.
The Lower Court Action
The parties agreed that the issue of liability could be severed from the issue of damages. The respondent brought a motion for partial summary judgment limited to the issue of liability.
Manno swore an affidavit that, during the negotiation of the purchase, he asked the respondent specific questions about the condition of the property and was given favourable answers. He said he made the purchase offer in reliance on those answers. Manno also said that if the full history of the grow-op had been revealed to him, that fact would have had an impact on the decision to purchase the property or on the purchase price.
Both parties agreed that the respondent had waived her right to request an inspection. The appellant denied that he had been asked the alleged questions about the house’s condition but admitted that he did not disclose the details of the grow-op. He also submitted that the home had no defect after the City lifted the work orders. As well, the APS expressly excluded the use of unwritten representations.
The motion judge found in the respondent’s favour on the issue of liability in a partial summary judgment and allowed the trial to proceed on the issue of damages.
The Court of Appeal Decision
The Ontario Court of Appeal was asked to review the motion judge’s decision. The panel found it was unable to do so because of the lack of conspicuous analysis in that judgment. ONCA noted,
The motion judge concludes that the appellant is liable to the respondent, but his endorsement offers no legal analysis and contains no findings of fact. He declares that the appellant ‘failed in his duty’ to the respondent, without explaining how he reached that conclusion. The nature of the duty, whether in negligence or contract, is not identified. (para 18)
The Court of Appeal went on to argue that, to allow for meaningful appellate review, a decision must “provide some insight into how the legal conclusion was reached and what facts were relied upon in reaching that conclusion” (para 22). It further noted that courts as a general rule grant significant deference to summary judgment motions, citing Hryniak v Mauldin,  1 SCR 87 [Hyrniak], a landmark Supreme Court ruling from this past January. In Hryniak, Justice Karakatsanis, writing for a unanimous bench, insisted that
absent an error of law, the exercise of powers under the new summary judgment rule attracts deference. When the motion judge exercises her new fact-finding powers under Rule 20.04(2.1) [of the Rules of Civil Procedure, RRO 1990, Reg 194] and determines whether there is a genuine issue requiring a trial, this is a question of mixed fact and law. Where there is no extricable error in principle, findings of mixed fact and law should not be overturned absent palpable and overriding error. (para 81)
The Court of Appeal in Barbieri went on to point out that it could not give deference to the lower court when it could not understand the bases for the motion judge’s findings. ONCA concluded, “In these circumstances, we have no alternative but to grant the appeal and set aside the declaration of the motion judge that the appellant is liable to the respondent” (para 25). The issue of liability is thus left to another trial, along with the issue of damages.
This ruling sends a clear message to lower courts that a judge at first instance must perform a clear, well-reasoned analysis of the issues and must articulate that analysis in his or her judgment. This practice will make possible judicial review of the lower court’s findings, when such review is called for. The Court of Appeal’s decision, in other words, makes vague rulings unreviewable, but also unacceptable.
Beyond judicial review, though, clear legal analysis is a boon for the entire legal system. All members of the legal community can benefit from and use judgments that clearly explain the decision maker’s thought process. Opaque judgments help no one and are a further barrier to access to justice.