On January 11th, the Court of Appeal for Ontario dismissed an appeal of a decision that struck various pleadings of a former senior IT employee of Ontario and his family members, who the province alleges stole over $10 million by making fraudulent COVID benefit claims.
The Support for Families Program (SFFP) was launched quickly in April 2020 to help families with the cost of at-home learning. The IT employee helped develop the applications for the program, including its online application portal.
The province sued the employee and his family for allegedly stealing funds by making fraudulent applications and diverting them to bank accounts opened in the employee’s and his family members’ names – presumably by exploiting vulnerabilities known to the employee because of his duties. The province also alleges that the employee participated in and profited from a kick back scheme tied to the SFFP.
The employee has defended, and denies the allegations. In his defence, he pleaded contributory negligence – i.e., that the province was negligent in protecting itself against his alleged fraud. The family members – represented by the same counsel – say that the employee told them he used their personal information to open bank accounts in which to deposit the proceeds of fraud. Although they did not crossclaim against the employee, they counterclaimed against he province in intrusion upon seclusion and negligence.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the striking of these claims.
It held that a defendant to a fraud or unjust enrichment claim cannot raise contributory negligence as a defence. The Court explained that allowing for the defence would suggest that crime pays and unfairly punish organizations who do not take adequate steps to protect themselves.
It held that the intrusion upon seclusion claim is untenable because it is based on the employee’s alleged misuse of information entrusted to him by his family, not the employer’s enterprise or a risk created or excaberated by that enterprise.
It held that a negligence pleading properly framed to address the Crown’s immunity from tort liability would fail for a lack duty/proximity given the family members claimed to have no interaction with the province other than in respect of the province’s money that the employee transferred into their accounts.
Sometimes the best defence is a good offence. That was likely the motivation for these novel claims – perhaps an attempt to capitalize upon the province’s sensitivity to mismanagement claims. They were rightly struck, and organizations in Ontario who are defrauded by insiders can continue to breathe easy.