In Cardinal Contracting Ltd. v. Seko Construction (Vancouver) Ltd., 2017 CarswellYukon 107, 2017 YKSC 51, the Yukon Supreme Court recently considered whether a payment clause in a construction contract was a pay-when-paid clause which entitled the contractor to only pay the subcontractor if and when it was paid by the owner.
The clause in question read as follows:
“Payments shall be made monthly on progress estimates as approved by the Contractor covering 90% of the value of the Work completed by the Subcontractor to the end of the previous month; such payments to be made 7 days after the Contractor receives payment for such Work from the Owner.” (underlining added)
The court considered the conflict in the law at the appellate level in Canada. In Timbro Developments Ltd. v. Grimsby Diesel Motors Inc.,  O.J. No. 448, the Ontario Court of Appeal held that the clause in question was a pay-when-paid clause, and that the contractor did not have to pay the subcontractor until paid by the owner. Justice Finlayson dissented, holding that the clause was a timing provision and “in no sense puts the subcontractors at risk that they will not be paid if the contractor is not paid. They are not co-adventurers or partners in this construction contract. Having done the work as found by the trial Judge, they are entitled to be paid.”
In Arnoldin Construction & Forms Ltd. v. Alta Surety Co.,  N.S.J. No. 43, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal held that the clause in question was not a pay-when-paid clause which entirely protected the contractor from paying until paid by the owner. Rather, the clause was a payment timing clause which provided that payments by the contractor would generally be paid after payment from the owner but did not preclude the contractor form finally paying the subcontractor even if unpaid by the owner. In the Arnoldin case, the clause was being relied upon by the payment bonding company and that factor may have been important since it makes less sense to interpret the clause as entirely relieving the contractor from paying the subcontractor when the contractor has provided a payment bond to deal with that very situation.
In concluding that the clause was not a pay-when-paid clause, the Yukon Supreme Court said:
“I am in agreement with the interpretation in Arnoldin where the words in the contract before it which were not as clear and precise as the words in Timbro where the contractor clearly assumed the risk of non-payment by the owner to the contractor. In the case at bar, I am of the view that the payment clause is a timing clause rather than a “pay when paid” clause as in Timbro. There is no clear wording that the payment on the Subcontract was conditional on the owner paying the contractor. Therefore, I order that the balance outstanding shall be paid regardless of whether Martian has paid Seko, subject to amount only under the two remaining issues.”
This decision follows the trend of recent cases. Most of the recent court decisions have held that, unless the language of the contract makes it very clear that the contractor does not have to pay the subcontractor at all if not paid by the owner, then the provision will not preclude the ultimate obligation of the contractor to pay the subcontractor.
It is difficult to distinguish Timbro from Arnoldin based upon the wording of the respective contracts. In Timbro the relevant wording was “when we have been paid by the owner”. In Arnoldin, the words were “after payment has been received by the Contractor.” The recent cases, following the Arnoldin and not the Timbro decision, may reflect a judicial antipathy to a clause which, in the absence of very clear words, denies payment to the subcontractor when, as Justice Finlayson said, it has done the work.
This decision high-lights the importance of the Prompt Payment regime proposed to be introduced into Ontario law by the Construction Lien Amendment Act, 2017. Under that legislation, a contractor is entitled to deliver to a subcontractor a notice of non-payment, and may deliver such a notice if it has not been paid by the owner. The same regime applies down the payment pyramid.
This legislation may arguably introduce into Ontario a statutory pay-when paid regime. That would be a surprising result since the general trend is for legislatures to ban pay-when paid (as has occured in the U.K. and in several U.S. states) and for courts to strain against finding that a clause is a pay-when-paid clause unless that is very clear.
Cardinal Contracting Ltd. v. Seko Construction (Vancouver) Ltd., 2017 CarswellYukon 107, 2017 YKSC 51
Building Contracts – pay-when-paid clauses – Prompt Payment legislation
Thomas G. Heintzman O.C., Q.C., LL.D. (Hon.), FCIArb October 27, 2017