mardi 23 août 2016

La Cour d'appel vient trancher l'épineuse question de savoir qui doit être l'instigateur d'une action collective

par Karim Renno
Renno Vathilakis Inc.

La Cour d'appel a récemment rendue une décision importante en matière d'autorisation d'une action collective dans l'affaire Sibiga c. Fido Solutions inc. (2016 QCCA 1299). Il s'agit d'une lecture obligatoire pour toute personne qui pratique dans le domaine parce qu'elle touche sur plusieurs questions d'importance. Une de celles-là est de trancher - définitivement, il semble - l'épineuse question de savoir s'il est acceptable que la genèse du recours collectif vienne des procureurs en demande (par opposition à la personne requérante).

Dans cette affaire, la Cour est saisie du pourvoi à l'encontre d'une décision de première instance refusant d'autoriser une action collective contre les Intimées relative aux frais d'itinérance.  

L'action proposée allègue que lesdits frais d'itinérance imposés par les Intimées aux consommateurs québécois sont abusifs et lésionnaires. Le juge de première instance en est venu à la conclusion que l'action ne devait pas être autorisée puisque les conditions des paragraphes (a), (b) et (d) de l'ancien article 1003 n'étaient pas rencontrées.

Nous intéresse particulièrement aujourd'hui la conclusion du juge de première instance à l'effet que l'Appelante n'avait pas la capacité pour adéquatement représenter le groupe. Cette conclusion se basait sur deux constations. D'abord que le recours était véritablement mené par les procureurs en demande (qui avaient recruté l'Appelante pour agir à titre de représentante) et ensuite parce que l'Appelante ne comprenait pas suffisamment le recours proposé.

L'Honorable juge Nicholas Kasirer - au nom d'une formation unanime - en vient à la conclusion que le juge de première instance a erré sur la question. Il souligne que les actions collectives menées par les avocats en demande sont non seulement inévitables dans certains domaines (comme le droit de la consommation), mais qu'elle sont parfois socialement souhaitables:
[101]     The lead role taken by counsel and the circumstances in which the appellant was recruited to represent the class are not incompatible with her status as representative. 
[102]     While it is not inappropriate to be mindful of possible excesses of what some have described as “entrepreneurial lawyering” in class actions, it is best to recognize that lawyer-initiated proceedings are not just inevitable, given the costs involved, but can also represent a social good in the consumer class action setting. As Perrell J. wrote in one Ontario case, “the entrepreneurial nature of a class proceeding can be a good thing because it may be the vehicle for access to justice, judicial economy, and behaviour modification, which are all the driving policy goals of the Class Proceedings Act, 1992. Scholars have observed that, within the proper limits of ethical rules that bind all lawyers, courts should recognize that lawyer-initiated consumer class actions can be helpful to meet the access to justice policy goals of the modern law of civil procedure. In my view, the fact that lawyers play an important, even primary role in instituting a consumer class action is not in itself a bar to finding that the designated representative has the requisite interest in the suit. Where the personal stake of a consumer representative is small – here, the appellant was charged $250.81 for roaming, of which only a portion is alleged to be overpayment – it is often unrealistic to insist upon a consumer-initiated class action.  
[103]     A lawyer-initiated consumer class action is not inherently incompatible with an acceptable solicitor-client relationship, nor does it mean that the client has “no control” over counsel. Article 1049 C.C.P. requires that a lawyer act for the representative. In our case, the appellant retains the authority to walk away from the class action, with permission of the court, and the lawyers cannot unilaterally “dismiss” the client as representative of the class. The judge was wrong to suggest that the fact that the lawyers chose their client here means that the appellant is an inadequate representative. As my colleague Dufresne, J.A. wrote in Fortier
[147]   Cela dit, les juges peuvent déceler, à l’occasion, des indices qui laissent croire que les démarches ayant donné naissance à la requête portent fortement l’empreinte des avocats, mais cela ne discrédite pas nécessairement celui ou celle qui fait valoir une cause d’action qui apparaît suffisamment sérieuse alors que, sans lui, le groupe serait privé de l’exercice d’un droit.  
[104]     Nothing in the record suggests that the appellant is not a genuine claimant and nothing suggests unethical conduct on the part of her counsel, either in the “investigative” stage of the case or after proceedings were instituted. I see nothing that would disqualify her by reason of the implication of her lawyers. In my view, denying her that status for that reason appears to contradict the policy basis upon which class actions are founded. If lawyers’ role is to be reconfigured in this setting, it strikes me that article 1003(d), as drafted, is not a sound basis for achieving that end.
Similairement, le juge Kasirer est d'avis que le juge de première instance s'est montré trop exigeant à l'égard de la compréhension par l'Appelante du recours. Selon lui, il s'agit qu'elle comprenne généralement le reproche formulé - ici la nature supposément abusive et lésionnaire des frais d'itinérance - pour satisfaire à son fardeau:
[108]     It is best to recognize, as does the appellant herself in written argument, that she may not have a perfect sense of the intricacies of the class action. This is not, however, what the law requires. As one author observed, Quebec rules are less strict in this regard that certain other jurisdictions: not only does the petitioner not have to be typical of other class members, but courts have held that he or she “need not be perfect, ideal or even particularly assiduous”. A representative need not single-handedly master the finery of the proceedings and exhibits filed in support of a class action. When considered in light of recent Supreme Court decisions where issues were equally if not more complicated, this is undoubtedly correct: in Infineon, for example, the consumer was considered a competent representative to understand the basis of a claim for indirect harm caused down the chain of acquisition for the sale of computer memory hotly debated by the economists; in Vivendi, the issue turned on the unilateral change by the insurer of in calculations of health insurance benefits to retirees and their surviving spouses; in Marcotte, the debate centered on currency conversion charges imposed by credit card issuers. It would be unrealistic to require that the representative have a perfect understanding of such issues when he or she is assisted, perforce, by counsel and, generally speaking, expert reports will eventually be in the record to substantiate calculations of what constitutes exploitative roaming fees. 
[109]     To my mind, this reading of article 1003(d) makes particular sense in respect of a consumer class action. Mindful of the vocation of the class action as a tool for access to justice, Professor Lafond has written that too stringent a measure of representative competence would defeat the purpose of consumer class actions. After reviewing the law on this point, my colleague Bélanger, J.A. observed in Lévesque v. Vidéotron, s.e.n.c., a consumer class action, that article 1003(d) does not impose an onerous burden to show the adequate character of representation: “[c]e faisant, la Cour suprême envoie un message plutôt clair quant au niveau de compétence requis pour être nommé représentant. Le critère est devenu minimaliste”. In Jasmin v. Société des alcools du Québec, another consumer action, Dufresne, J.A. alluded to the Infineon standard and warned against evaluations of the adequacy of representation that are too onerous or too harsh, echoing an idea also spoken to by legal scholars. 
[110]     In keeping with the “liberal approach” to the interpretation of article 1003(d), especially suited with the consumer class action, it suffices here that the appellant understand, as she has alleged, that she was billed a disproportionate amount for roaming because of the unfair difference between the amount charged and the real cost of the service to the respondent Fido. She must know that, like herself, others in the class, whether roaming in the U.S. or elsewhere, were also disproportionately billed, either with her own service provider or others who offer like services to Quebecers. She of course must see that her claim raises common questions with others in the class and that she is prepared to represent their interest and her own going forward.
Comme on peut le voir, la barre est particulièrement basse à l'égard des connaissances nécessaires pour être un represent adéquat.

Référence : [2016] ABD 335

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