November 2020

Enforceability of Settlements in the Context of Self-Represented Plaintiffs

Case Study: Huma v. Mississauga Hospital

Jessica Grant
Jessica Grant,

By Jessica Grant

Introduction and Background

In Huma v. Mississauga Hospital,1 Ioan Huma, Elena Huma, and Christine Huma (the “plaintiffs”), commenced a medical malpractice action against 14 physicians and two hospitals (the “defendants”), alleging to have suffered significant damages as a result of the professional wrongdoing of same. The plaintiffs obtained legal assistance with the preparation of their Statement of Claim. The lawyer who provided the assistance would not go on the record, and the Statement of Claim stated that the plaintiffs were self-represented. Upon receipt of the Claim, the defendants defended the action.

Months later, having heard nothing from the plaintiffs, the defendants inquired as to whether the plaintiffs were willing to dismiss the action on a without costs basis in exchange for a release. Elena Huma replied by email to counsel for the defendants, stating: “we are sending this email to inform you that we decided to dismiss this action...against all defendant doctors and hospitals, on a without costs basis...” (“the email”). She signed the email on behalf of all three of the plaintiffs. Counsel for the defendants replied and confirmed that his clients were agreeable to the dismissal. He provided a release, consent and draft order, and asked the plaintiffs to return signed copies of same. The plaintiffs then retained counsel, and subsequently refused to proceed with the settlement. The defendants moved, under Rule 49.09 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, to enforce the settlement.

Among other things, this case considers the use of overly broad releases, their applicability in the negotiating process, and their enforcement in the context of self-represented individuals.

The Motion Judge's Decision

The motions judge, Justice Sossin, considered two issues:

  1. whether a binding settlement was reached, and
  2. if so, whether he should refuse to enforce the settlement.

On the first issue, Justice Sossin concluded that, based on Elena Huma's email to counsel for the defendants, the parties had reached a binding agreement on specific terms of a settlement: that the action would be dismissed and that there would be no costs.

...the parties had reached a binding agreement on specific terms of a settlement.

He then noted that the releases produced by the defendants included additional terms, such as confidentiality and a waiver of independent legal advice. He found that these terms should not be enforced and that they had no bearing on the applicability of the “essential” terms of the settlement (that the action would be dismissed and that there would be no costs).

On the second issue, while Justice Sossin concluded that he had the discretion to refuse to enforce the settlement based on the test set out in Milios v. Zagas,2 he declined to do so, as he did not consider the settlement to be unconscionable.

The Appeal

On appeal, Ioan Huma, Elena Huma, and Christine Huma (now the “appellants”), advanced two arguments:

  1. the motions judge erred in finding an enforceable agreement to settle, and
  2. the motions judge erred by not exercising his discretion to decline to enforce the settlement.

With respect to the second issue, the appellants argued, inter alia, that Elena Huma had sent the email to counsel for the defendants without authority from the other appellants.

On the first issue, the court upheld the decision of Justice Sossin, noting that the conduct of the parties must be viewed objectively to determine whether a contract had been made.3 Although the respondents had included terms in their releases that went beyond the terms that the parties had agreed to via email, overly broad releases do not negate the existence of a settlement. There was no evidence that the settlement agreement was conditional on the respondents obtaining a release with only the proposed provisions.4 Further, a parties' proffering of an overly broad release does not repudiate an existing settlement agreement unless, after discussion, the party refuses to proceed without it being signed.5

...the additional terms added to the release by the defendants were not part of the settlement...

In this case, the court upheld Justice Sossins' conclusion that the additional terms added to the release by the defendants were not part of the settlement, and that despite this, the terms that were agreed upon by the parties – dismissal of the action without costs – remained binding.

Finally, in dismissing the appeal, the court agreed with Justice Sossin with respect to the appellants' second argument on appeal – that the settlement should be enforced because it was not unconscionable. The court noted the absence of evidence that the appellants' action would have succeeded. Further, despite the appellants being unrepresented, they were sophisticated, and were not pressured into agreeing to settle. The court also rejected the notion that the settlement had been agreed to without the consent of all the appellants.

Concluding Remarks

While we tend to think of the Courts as bending over backwards to assist self-represented plaintiffs, this case is an interesting one to consider – especially in the context of enforcement of settlements. The Court refused to accept the arguments of the plaintiffs/appellants and agreed that the settlement was not unconscionable. Indeed, as the Court noted, a parties' proffering of an overly broad release does not repudiate an existing settlement agreement unless certain requirements are met (i.e. the party refuses to proceed without it being signed).

  1. Huma v. Mississauga Hospital, 2020 ONCA 644.
  2. Milios v. Zagas, [1998] OJ No 812.
  3. Olivieri v. Sherman, 2007 ONCA 491.
  4. Hodaie v. RBC Dominion Securities, 2011 ONSC 6881 at para 18.
  5. Kuo v. Kuo, 2017 BCCA 245 at para 41.

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