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Kelowna real estate company must pay $50,000 for defaming former agents

Image Credit: FILE PHOTO

A Kelowna real estate company must pay two former agents $27,500 each for defaming them and abusing the court process by suing after they left the firm.

The agents worked for Kelowna’s Premier Canadian Properties real estate firm when it was purchased in 2019. When they tried to leave — and properly take their business with them — the manager of the real estate firm lied to their rental clients, then sued without basis, a judge has ruled.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Gary Weatherill called it "bullying tactics" when he ordered Premier to pay $25,000 to each agent for defamation, another $2,500 each for aggravated damages and an unspecified amount in special costs.

Donna Merle Craig and Geri Surinak are licenced real estate agents and property managers who have been friends for 30 years, the court ruling says, building a property management portfolio. In 2013, Craig and Surinak moved to Premier Canadian Properties and took their portfolio with them, since they owned it.

They had a similar agreement with Premier in which they continued to own the property management portfolio.

Everything went along fine until Premier was sold to a numbered company in July 2019. Fred Johnston took over management of the firm.

The previous owner told Johnston several times that Premier did not own the portfolio, according to the decision.

Craig and Surinak grew increasingly uncomfortable with Premier’s management and, on Jan. 24, 2020, gave notice they were leaving.

Of course, they took the property management portfolio with them, which is when things turned nasty.

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Johnston argued that Premier owned the portfolio even though all but one of the property owners signed letters saying they were sticking with Craig and Surinak.

Premier went so far as to write letters to the property owners saying that Craig and Surinak had resigned and payments should now be made to Premier.

Some actually did so. Premier also did not honour some of the security deposits rental tenants had paid to the property owners so Craig and Surinak had to pay out of pocket to some tenants who moved out.

In May 2020, Premier filed a notice of claim saying, among other things, that it owned the portfolio.

Craig and Surinak countered by saying not only did the portfolio belong to them, but Premier knew it had no chance of winning in court and, therefore, Premier was “using the court system to threaten, intimidate and bully them,” the ruling says.

Judge Weatherill came down soundly on the side of the two agents.

“The evidence is overwhelming that Craig and Surinak always beneficially owned the portfolio,” he wrote. “On the evidence, I accept that PCP (Premier Canadian Properties) made its claim as a bullying tactic to gain control of the portfolio; as a way of sanctioning its improper retention of trust funds belonging to the owners and tenants; knowing that its claim had no prospect of success and that it could never prove that it had suffered damages; and otherwise using the court process for an ulterior motive or other improper purpose.

“Accordingly, I accept that PCP’s action is a sham.”

He wrote that Premier had “wrongfully embarked on a campaign of defaming them” and “this misrepresentation was made in an attempt to seize the portfolio and with the intent to injure Craig and Surinak in their business, trade and calling. The allegations injured them in fact as they lost clients and their reputation in the community suffered.”

Judge Weatherill stopped just short of awarding punitive damages along with the other levies.

“I am not persuaded that punitive damages are appropriate in this case,” he wrote. “Although it is close, I consider the general and aggravated damages to be adequate compensation for Craig and Surinak and to provide a measure of deterrence for PCP’s behaviour.”

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