Is a party to a contract obligated to mitigate its damages at the same time that it is asking the court to order specific performance? Since the party wants the contract performed, not damages for non-performance, the obligation to mitigate seems to be totally inapplicable.
Yet, in Southcott Estates Inc. v. Toronto Catholic District School Board the Supreme Court of Canada has just held that a plaintiff seeking specific performance may have an obligation to mitigate. If it doesn’t do so, and the court holds that specific performance should not be granted, then the plaintiff may be awarded very little if any damages.
Building contracts do not often give rise to claims for specific performance. That is because a court cannot readily supervise the conduct of a construction project. But specific performance is a remedy which is often sought by developers who assemble land for the purpose of construction projects. So the decision in Southcott has direct implications for companies involved in the assembly of land for building projects.
Southcott was a single purpose company which was part of the Ballantry Group of Companies. The Toronto Catholic District School Board agreed to sell to Southcott a property which was surplus to its needs. Southcott intended to develop the property for residential purposes. It was a condition of the agreement that the School Board obtain a severance from the Committee of Adjustment on or before the closing date. The School Board failed to have a development plan prepared and failed to obtain the severance. When the closing date arrived, the School Board refused Southcott’s request to extend the closing date. The School Board declared the transaction to be at an end, and returned Southcott’s deposit.
Southcott commenced an action for specific performance or, in the alternative, for damages. Southcott succeeded on the merits of the action, and the real question was whether it was entitled to specific performance or damages.
Southcott admitted that it didn’t intend and never tried to mitigate its damages. It said that it was incorporated solely for the purposes of this project and had no assets other than the money provided by Ballantry. Southcott said that it neither intended to nor tried to purchase other land, especially having regard to its involvement in this action. At trial, the School Board led evidence that 81 parcels of vacant development land in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) were sold between the date of breach and the date of trial. That land was suitable for residential development. In fact during that period other companies in the Ballantry Group purchased lands which were similar to the subject property.
The Supreme Court noted that, in Asamera Oil Corp. v. Seal Oil& General Corp,  1 S.C.R. 633, it had dealt with the obligation to mitigate in relation to a claim for specific performance. The Asamera case dealt with an investment contract, not real estate. In Asamera, the court had said that the plaintiff needed to show “some fair, real, and substantial justification” before a claim for specific performance could be insulated from the obligation to mitigate. If the plaintiff could show some “substantial and legitimate interest” in seeking specific performance as opposed to damages, then the plaintiff might justify its inaction in failing to mitigate.
The Supreme Court also noted that, since its decision in Semelhago v. Paramadevan,  2 S.C.R. 415, a plaintiff could not assert that every piece of land was “unique” and insist on specific performance of a contract to purchase that piece of land.
The Court then proceeded to deal with three issues:
First, the fact that Southcott was a single purpose company did not exempt it from the general principles applicable to specific performance and mitigation of damages. If it were otherwise, everyone would establish single purpose companies to exempt themselves from these general principles.
Second, Southcott did not have a sufficient justification for its failure to mitigate its damages. The Court said:
“The trial judge made clear findings that the land was nothing more unique to Southcott than a singularly good investment and that this was not a case in which damages were too speculative or uncertain to be an adequate remedy. The unique qualities related solely to the profitability of the development for which damages were an adequate remedy … A plaintiff deprived of an investment property does not have a “fair, real, and substantial justification” or a “substantial and legitimate” interest in specific performance… unless he can show that money is not a complete remedy because the land has “a peculiar and special value” to him…. Southcott could not make such a claim. It was engaged in a commercial transaction for the purpose of making a profit. The property’s particular qualities were only of value due to their ability to further profitability. Southcott cannot therefore justify its inaction.”
Third, the Supreme Court held that there was evidence to support the Court of Appeal’s conclusion that Southcott had suffered no damages. It agreed with Southcott that the mere fact that Southcott had admitted it did not mitigate its damages did not throw the burden of proof on the damages issue onto Southcott. Since mitigation of damages was at issue, the normal burden of proof remained on the defendant, the School Board. However, taken as a whole and in the light of purchases by other Ballantry companies of similar land during the same period, there was evidence to demonstrate that Southcott had suffered no damages.
The Southcott decision shows that the plaintiff – and the defendant – rolls the dice on the same “uniqueness of the property” issue, both for the specific performance claim and the damage claim. If the property isn’t really unique, then the plaintiff won’t be awarded specific performance. If the property isn’t really unique, then the plaintiff will be denied damages if it doesn’t mitigate. So the parties had better get that issue right, or someone is either going to win or lose both issues. In effect, the plaintiff is either going to obtain specific performance, or (if the damages could have been mitigated) little or no damages.
The second lesson to learn from Southcott is that the uniqueness cannot be solely based on value. Value can be as much translated into a damage award as into an award for specific performance. If the property is really valuable, or more convenient, or more developable, in relation to other available properties, then those advantages can be awarded by way of damages. They may not be an excuse for the plaintiff not searching for reasonable alternative properties.
See Heintzman and Goldsmith on Canadian Building Contracts, 4th ed.
Chapters 5 and 6, part 1.
Southcott Estates Inc. v. Toronto Catholic District School Board, 2012 SCC 51