Thursday, 9 February 2017

Fair Warning to Contractors – The Fair Trading Act’s Requirements Apply to Construction Contracts

Author: Sarah Levine

The recent Provincial Court of Alberta decision, R. v. 1587915 Alberta Inc. (“1587915”), is a stark reminder of the Alberta Fair Trading Act’s (the “FTA”) application to construction contracts, particularly for home renovations, and the potentially serious ramifications for contractors who deviate from the technical requirements of fair practice and compliance under the FTA. Not only can corporations be found guilty of contraventions of the FTA, but their directors can also be found guilty of the offence if they authorize the impugned conduct, whether or not the corporation has been prosecuted for the offence.

The Facts
1587915 involves 31 charges under the FTA and its Regulations against 1587915 Alberta Inc. and its directors, Kieron and Greta Warren. Kieron Warren (“Warren”) was also charged with four counts under the Criminal Code- two counts of fraud (under section 380(1)(b)) and two counts of theft (section 334(b)).

The 31 charges under the FTA and Regulations arose in respect of 6 families that 1587915 contracted with to provide home renovations. The charges against 1587915, Kieron and Greta Warren were as follows:

Six Counts   Section 104(1) FTA: No person may engage in a designated business unless the person holds a licence under this Act that authorizes the person to engage in that business;

Six Counts   Section 10(2)(a) of the Prepaid Contracting Business Licensing Regulation AR 185/99. A person who is engaged in a prepaid contracting business must ensure that every prepaid contract the person enters into complies with the requirements of section 35 of the Act;

Six Counts   Section 31(2) FTA: Within 15 days after a direct sales contract is cancelled, the supplier must refund to the consumer all money paid by the consumer and return to the consumer’s premises any trade-in or an amount equal to the trade-in allowance;

Six Counts   Section 6(4)(a) FTA: It is an unfair trade practice for a supplier to do or say anything that might reasonably deceive or mislead a customer.

Six Counts   Section 6(4)(n) FTA: It is an unfair trade practice for a supplier to represent that goods or services will be supplied within a stated period if the supplier knows or ought to know that they will not.

One Count   Section 10(3) Prepaid Contracting Business Licensing Regulation AR 185/99: A person who is engaged in the prepaid contracting business and who enters into a prepaid contract with a buyer must provide a copy of the signed contract to the buyer.

A prepaid contracting business is a business designated as such by the Designation of Trades and Businesses Regulation. These businesses include contracts for construction, maintenance or renovation where, critically, the prepaid contractor solicits, negotiates or concludes construction or maintenance contracts in person at any place other than their place of business and accepts money before all the work is done and/or the services are provided. Such operations require a license in order to engage in the prepaid contracting business. A direct sales contract is a consumer transaction where the consideration for the goods or services exceeds $25 and is negotiated or concluded in person at a place other than the supplier’s place of business or at a place other than a market place, auction, trade fair, agricultural fair or exhibition.

Behaviour in Breach of the FTA and Regulations
The six contracts from which the charges arose are variations on the same theme. In each of the contracts, references were made to completion deadlines and payment due dates. In each case, the families expressed concern that insufficient progress had been made by the dates when the contractor demanded more money. When the issue arose, as it did in each case, Warren referred back to the contract showing that the due dates of payments were clearly stated and were not related to progress.

In each of the six project situations, much the same pattern of conduct followed: after execution of the contract and the first payment, demolition began and generally proceeded. After demolition, customer complaints were made by all families regarding: lack of workers, lack of workers with appropriate skills, periods of inactivity and difficulty in reaching Warren. When meetings were held with Warren, he stated that the customers were late in making progress payments and in breach of the contract. Evidence was heard that additional contractors were called in by customers, and their explanation for engaging additional contractors was nonattendance by the contractor and lack of progress on their project.

Following a consideration of the evidence given by the parties, the Court found that 1587915, Kieron and Greta Warren were guilty of engaging in a prepaid contract without a license for all six contracts; 1587915 and Warren were guilty of failing to comply with the prepaid contract requirements; and that 1587915 and Warren were guilty of failing to refund money to their customers following the cancellation of a prepaid contract.

The Court did not find 1587915, Kieron or Greta Warren guilty of doing or saying anything to mislead a customer with respect to one of the contracts, but did find either 1587915 or Warren, or both, guilty of this charge with respect to the five other contracts. Similarly, 1587915, Kieron and Greta Warren were not found guilty of promising to supply goods with the knowledge that they would not be able to with respect to the first contract. However, 1587915 or Warren, or both, were found guilty of this charge with respect to the other five contracts. Lastly, the Court did not find Warren guilty of any of the four criminal charges of theft or fraud with respect to the home renovation contracts he entered into.

Tips and Takeaways
While Warren’s behaviour was particularly egregious, the moral of the story is to bear in mind the swath of technical requirements for licensing, entering into contracts, and otherwise engaging in certain business practices in accordance with the FTA and its Regulations.

The technical requirements of the FTA and its Regulations are not to be taken lightly when prepaid contractors and/or direct selling businesses contract with customers for construction services. The purpose of this legislation is ultimately to protect consumers from unfair business practices, ranging from misrepresentation and misleading customers to operating without proper licensing. As is evident from this case, the Courts will vigorously uphold this mandate in the interests of protecting the public, which can be to the detriment of contractors if they do not take care to comply with the FTA and its requirements.

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