Ottawa

Supreme Court says Carleton University can take prof's pension back

Canada's top court has ruled that Carleton University can reclaim almost $500,000 in pension payments to a professor who went missing before being found dead years later.

Memo and Quebec law complicated George Roseme's case

Political science professor George Roseme was suffering from early-stage Alzheimer's disease when he disappeared in 2007. (Danny Globerman/CBC)

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that Carleton University can reclaim nearly $500,000 in pension payments to a professor who went missing before being found dead in the woods near his home.

George Roseme, a political science professor at the Ottawa university, was 77 and suffering from early-stage Alzheimer's disease when he disappeared in western Quebec in September 2007. Roseme had signed a memorandum agreeing that his pension payments would cease with his death, rather than going to his heirs or estate.

When the university learned of Roseme's disappearance, Carleton informed Lynne Threlfall — his former partner, heir and recipient of the pension money as his property administrator — that it would cease payments.

The university was forced to reverse the decision after Threlfall pointed out that under Quebec law, Roseme was presumed to be alive for seven years after his disappearance or until there was proof of death.

In July 2013, Roseme's remains were discovered by a dog in the woods near his property, and a coroner's investigation concluded he had died in 2007.

That prompted the university to go to court to recoup $497,332 in pension payments.

Plan was clear

Threlfall unsuccessfully argued in Quebec Superior Court that she should not have to return the payments, given that Roseme's death had only recently been confirmed.

A three-judge appeal panel upheld the decision against Threlfall, prompting her appeal to the Supreme Court.

...failing to order restitution would allow one party (Ms. Threlfall) to retain an undue advantage.- Threlfall v Carleton University, 2019

In its 6-3 decision Thursday, the Supreme Court said the retirement plan "unambiguously contemplated the termination of benefits upon Mr. Roseme's actual death" and the legal basis for the payments from Carleton had evaporated, meaning they "were made in error and in the absence of any debt."

"Indeed, this is a clear example of a case in which failing to order restitution would allow one party (Ms. Threlfall) to retain an undue advantage," the decision reads.

The case represents the high court's first examination of Quebec's legal regime governing a person's absence.

The dissenting judges said the regime contemplates that an absent person may in fact be dead, yet legally treated as being alive insofar as their rights are concerned.

As a consequence, there is no basis in Quebec law to order Threlfall to return the money received from Carleton, given the payments "were validly due to him at the time they were made," they said.

Partner facing financial hit

Benoit Duchesne, who represented Threlfall, said the decision will be an enormous financial hit to her.

He said she used the pension funds to maintain Roseme's farm property and paid taxes she will now have to try and recover.  

"You have someone who has literally bet the farm that she lives on on this case and has to go back 12 years on tax returns," he said.

"It is going to be exceedingly difficult."

with files from Matthew Kupfer