Fraud and Insolvency Law

Both of Canada’s primary insolvency statutes, the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act (“BIA”) and the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (“CCAA”) provide for an automatic stay of all legal proceedings when an insolvent debtor files for or seeks insolvency protection. The purpose of the stay is to provide breathing space to a debtor attempting to restructure its business so as to avoid “death by a thousand cuts” and also to ensure similarly situated creditors are treated equally. While it is an integral part of Canada’s insolvency regime, the stay of proceedings is not inviolable and there have been a number of noteworthy cases where Canadian courts have considered whether to lift the statutory stay and permit proposed class actions to proceed where the plaintiff has alleged fraud.
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In Turbo Logistics Canada Inc. v. HSBC Bank Canada, Baker & McKenzie’s litigation team was successful in upholding at the Ontario Court of Appeal, the trial decision awarding HSBC judgments in fraud for over $10.3 million dollars. At trial, Madam Justice Ruth Mesbur accepted the argument that “but for” the false statements made by the appellants, HSBC would never have made the loan and therefore the bank deserved damages equal to 100% of its loss on the loan. On appeal, the appellants argued that their rights under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms had been violated during the trial and that the trial should never have proceeded because an adjournment should have been granted.
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In Wong v. Luu, the British Columbia Court of Appeal upheld an order requiring the production of a redacted trust ledger to the bankruptcy trustees for Luu Hung Viet Derrick (“Luu”) on the grounds that the trust ledger was not presumptively privileged and that production would not violate the bankrupt’s right to communicate in confidence with his lawyers.

In 2012, Luu had been adjudged bankrupt in Hong Kong and his bankruptcy trustees had been hunting for his assets when the trustees became aware of more than $3 million dollars paid into the trust account of Luu’s lawyers in British Columbia in 2013. This had not been disclosed by Luu. When the bankruptcy trustees sought information from Luu’s lawyers about the monies received, they refused to provide any information on grounds of legal privilege.

The trustees successfully sought an order from the British Columbia Supreme Court compelling Luu’s lawyers to produce accounting records of the amount of trust funds held for or at the direction of Luu, and records showing the receipt of any trust funds and any payments made from trust to Luu or anyone at Luu’s direction. Luu’s lawyers appealed the order requiring production of the trust ledger.
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In Akagi v. Synergy Group (2000) Inc. (“Akagi“), the Ontario Court of Appeal set aside a series of ex parte orders made by Toronto’s Commercial List Court granting broad investigative powers to a court-appointed receiver.  The receiver had been empowered under section 101 of the Courts of Justice Act which gives the court powers to make such an order “where it appears to a judge of the court to be just or convenient to do so”.  The Court of Appeal ruled in its decision released on May 22, 2015, that there are situations where it is appropriate to appoint a receiver to investigate the affairs of a debtor or to review certain transactions including even, in proper circumstances, the affairs of and transactions concerning related non-parties.  However, the Court of Appeal ruled that the receivership in Akagi had morphed into an expansive investigation on behalf of non-parties which the Court found to be improper and misguided.
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How do you uncover a suspected fraud when you cannot obtain any information from the suspected fraudster in the first place? And what do you do if the suspected fraudster has avoided complying with a court order to produce documents? One under-utilized strategy is to seek to appoint a receiver over the books and records of the alleged fraudster.
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Our team acted for one of the parties in Labourers’ Pension Fund of Central and Eastern Canada v. Sino-Forest Corporation, where Justice Morawetz of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice approved Ernst & Young LLP’s $117 million settlement relating to class action lawsuits commenced by jilted investors following the downfall of former stock market darling, Sino-Forest Corporation.  The $9.2B class action involves significant fraud allegations that call into question Sino-Forest’s structure, reporting and revenues, as well as the practices of its auditors and underwriters. In addition to garnering attention as the largest auditor settlement to date in a Canadian securities class action, this landmark decision is noteworthy for the Court’s approval of a comprehensive third-party release and a ‘no opt-out’ settlement feature granted in favour of Ernst & Young.   The Court also approved a controversial framework that would make similar settlements available for  future settling defendants – a feature some critics characterize as extraordinary relief in cases where there are underlying fraud allegations.
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In Wolf v Anstett, 2012 ONSC 3220, a creditor used section 5 of the Assignment and Preferences Act (the Ontario provincial legislation which may be applied to set aside transactions made by an insolvent person or a “person in contemplation of insolvency”, with an intent to give an unjust preference to a creditor) and Rule 16.08(16) of the Rules of Civil Procedure[i] to halt a would-be fraudster from attempting to thwart a previous judgment by using a newly incorporated entity to receive payments that should have went to the plaintiff.
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Dividing up a shortfall from a Ponzi scheme was first posed before the United States Supreme Court in 1924. The infamous case of Cunningham v. Brown dealt with the original Ponzi scheme of Charles Ponzi and distributing remaining funds back to victims when his investment scheme was finally unravelled, but left victims with only a fraction of their original investments. Unraveling a Ponzi scheme to return a shortfall of money back among its victims is akin to untangling the noodles in a half-eaten bowl of spaghetti at a buffet and trying to determine who cooked each strand. Where multiple chefs (all using the same recipe) all had their spaghetti thrown in one giant pot, it would be a seemingly impossible task to untangle the half-eaten bowl to see which chefs’ spaghetti was still in that bowl.
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