In a case that turned on a dispute over number rounding and comma placement, an Ontario court has dismissed a class action brought against Bell Canada by the company’s retired employees.
On Aug. 12, Ontario Superior Court of Justice certified a proposed class action brought on behalf of 35,000 retired Bell employees that claimed the company had miscalculated their pension cost of living increases. The suit sought $150 million in damages.
In the same judgment, the court ultimately ruled in favour of the company, saying, “For those who loved law school, it does not get any better than this.”
The claim concerned how the pensioners’ indexing increase was to be calculated. In 2017, the company calculated a 1% increase, whereas the plaintiff group argued it should have been 2%.
While the two sides agreed on the mechanics of the calculation, they disagreed about how to round off numbers.
For 2017, both sides agreed that the percentage increase over the previous year was 1.49371%.
The plaintiffs said that figure should have been rounded to one decimal place, or 1.5%; the company said it should have been two places, or 1.49%. The rounding mattered because the figure was then rounded to the nearest whole number, which would have been 1% using the company’s approach, but 2% using the pensioners’.
“That 1% difference is, of course, crucial to the 2017 payment calculation for retirees. But it will also reverberate through time, since each year’s calculation is premised on an increase from the previous year,” the court said.
In deciding which approach was correct, the court noted that the issue rested on the interpretation of a pension provision stating that the increase is to be determined by “the Consumer Price Index, as determined by Statistics Canada.”
The question was whether Bell, as manager of the pension plan, was to determine the increase, or whether it should have applied the cost of living increase calculated as Statistics Canada does—by rounding to one decimal place.
“As both sets of counsel point out, the proper interpretation of this provision depends on the importance one ascribes to the comma after the words ‘Consumer Price Index,'” the court noted, adding that interpreting the provision “raises a classic comma question.”
Ultimately, the court concluded the offending comma was placed needlessly and did not imply that StatsCan’s approach to rounding must be used.
“I do not know why [the provision] is phrased in the awkward way that it is. I certainly do not know why a comma had to be inserted,” the court said. “It was likely punctuated that way unconsciously; I do not believe it was a legally induced comma.”
As a result, the court found that the company was correct in using its own approach to rounding, and that it did not breach its duties to its pensioners. The court dismissed the class action.