This is an appeal and supersedeas by Johnson Service Company, a Wisconsin corporation, awarded by this Court to a final order of the Circuit Court of Kanawha County granting declaratory relief, a money judgment of $880.76 and statutory costs to John W. Moore, a landlord, under a certain lease agreement in which the Company was the tenant. In this Court, Moore cross-assigned error to the ruling of the trial court denying him reasonable attorney fees allowable under certain conditions contained in the lease agreement between the parties.
Moore and the Company entered into a lease dated April 7, 1967. Subsequently, the parties executed two addenda and a "rider" dated May 12, 1967 in modification of the original agreement, all covering the demise of certain commercial premises to be constructed by Moore, containing 4,052 square feet of floor space and 1,551 square feet of parking space, located in South Charleston, West Virginia. The term of the lease was for ten years, commencing November 15, 1967. The lessee Company prepared the lease instruments.
Pursuant to the lease, Moore was to be responsible for the pre-existing real estate tax base, but according to a tax escalation clause contained in the rider agreement, the Company would be responsible for the payment of increased taxes, ascertainable as follows:
Real property taxes on the demised property for the year 1968 amounted to $123.20 and for the following calendar year of 1969 amounted to $1,003.96.
Moore tendered a statement to the Company in an amount of $880.76 for the excess of the 1969 real estate taxes over the 1968 taxes. The Company refused to pay the excess figure and contended that the foregoing tax escalation clause as it referred to the "full first year's assessment" meant the calendar year 1969 and that the Company's liability for excess taxes, if any, should be computed upon a comparison of the 1970 real estate taxes with the 1969 real estate taxes.
When it became apparent that the parties were unable to agree on the meaning of the clause in relation to the real estate taxes levied, Moore instituted a civil action against the Company seeking a declaration of the parties' rights under the tax escalation clause in the lease agreement, seeking a money judgment for "the excess 1969 real estate taxes" and also seeking a recovery for reasonable attorney fees as provided under the terms of the lease, as follows:
Upon these facts, the trial court made certain findings of facts and conclusions of law, and ruled in favor of Moore that the Company was (1) liable to Moore for that part of the real estate taxes paid by Moore, or to be payable by Moore, exceeding the sum of $123.20 for the years 1969 through and including the calendar year 1976 and on a 5/6 pro rata basis for that part of the real estate taxes payable by Moore for the calendar year 1977 exceeding the sum of $123.20; (2) granted the plaintiff's request for a monetary judgment in the sum of $880.76 for the excess 1969 calendar year property taxes over those paid in the calendar year 1968; and (3) statutory costs of the civil action. The trial court also ruled in favor of the Company and held that Moore was not entitled to reasonable attorney fees as provided for in the lease because such were not items of recovery permitted under the law of this jurisdiction.
Two legal issues are presented for resolution: First, whether the trial court was correct in its interpretation of the lease and its determination that the "full first year's assessment" referred to the first calendar year after the commencement of the lease term. Secondly, whether public policy permits recovery of reasonable attorney fees upon contingencies provided for by consenting parties to a written lease agreement.
The first issue encompasses three assignments of error: first, that the trial court erred in finding that the phrase "full first year's assessment" had no established legal meaning and was "patently ambiguous"; second, that the trial court erred in attempting to construe the questioned phrase in light of the words employed in the context
Individually, the words comprising the phrase "full first year's assessment" convey reasonably definitive thoughts. In their combined form, however, the same words create considerable confusion. The modifiers—"full first year's"—are words of common usage which, separately or collectively, require little or no explanation to discern their intended meaning. Similarly, the word "assessment", when used in the parlance of property taxation, ordinarily imparts a well-defined meaning. See, 84 C.J.S. Taxation § 391 (1954). The composite phrase here presented does not explain itself without resort to construction.
Although variously defined, "assessment", in its technical sense, generally refers to "The listing and valuation of property for the purpose of proportioning a tax upon it, either according to value alone or in proportion to benefit received." Black's Law Dictionary, 4th Ed. (1951) at 150. As recognized in Breckenridge v. County School Board, 146 Va. 1, 135 S.E. 693 (1926):
Accord, Sussex County v. Jarratt, 129 Va. 672, 106 S.E. 384 (1921); Hilliard on Taxation (1875) at 291.
In George S. Hazelwood Company v. Pitsenbarger, Assessor, 149 W.Va. 485, 141 S.E.2d 314 (1965), decided after the 1961 amendment of W.Va.Code 1931, 11-3-1 changed the assessment date for non-utility property, it was held:
Thus, in this State, all non-utility property is "assessed" as of one particular day, the first day of July, even though the actual mechanics of the assessment procedure are likely to occur subsequent to that date.
The statute itself, W.Va.Code 1931, 11-3-1, as amended, furnishes further illustration of the technical significance of the term "assessment." It provides that all property shall be assessed annually at its true and actual value "as of" the first day of July. It does not require, as counsel for appellant contends, that property be assessed "on" that day.
The resulting distinction is apparent and material; the "assessment" date, in the technical sense, constitutes a fixed reference to a particular day upon which ownership and value are to be ascertained for future levy, and not to either the actual mechanics of the assessment procedure or to the initiatory day for the corresponding tax obligation. The technical distinction thus reveals the inherent ambiguity within the phrase, "full first year's assessment" as it relates to the law. The modifiers—"full first year's"—connote a span of time which seemingly suggests the levy or tax period which follows the assessment date, whereas "assessment" refers to the particular day fixed by the Legislature upon which ownership and value shall be ascertained for the subsequent application of the levy. Hence, the purported certainty of the word "assessment", as a term of art, is materially obscured by its modifiers when compared with the statutory scheme of assessment and levy.
Even in statutory parlance, the term "assessment" does not connote a single concept.
See also, Black's Law Dictionary, 4th Ed., "Assessment" (1951). In this context, we observe that in the State of Wisconsin, where this agreement apparently was prepared, the word "assessment" has been a source of some consternation. In Prentice v. Ashland County, imp., 56 Wis. 345, 347, 14 N.W. 297, 298 (1882), the court said:
Finally, at the opposite end of the spectrum, extreme examples of adulteration of the term "assessment" are to be found in private agreements of individuals which have employed the term indiscriminately. The variety of concepts ascribed to the term is aptly illustrated by many of the cases collated in Annot., 48 A.L.R.3d 287 (1973), "Landlord and Tenant: Construction of Provisions of Lease Providing for Escalation of Rental in Event of Tax Increases." Although none of the decisions cited therein is in point, the variety of usage employed illustrates the practical flexibility of the term. See, e. g., Auerbach v. Mr. & Mrs. Foster's Place, Inc., 128 Misc. 875, 220 N.Y.S. 281 (1927); Heymann v. Nuss, 97 Pa.Super. 114 (1929); Bernstein v. Bernstein, 205 App.Div. 741, 200 N.Y.S. 1 (1923).
The foregoing, we believe, clearly supports the trial court's view that the phrase in question required construction because it was patently ambiguous. The appellant's first assignment of error is without merit.
Neither are we troubled by the trial court's endeavor to ascertain the intended meaning of the ambiguous phrase from a perusal of the whole agreement. The language of a lease agreement, as any other contract, must be considered as an integrated whole, giving effect, if possible, to all parts of the instrument. See, Wood Coal Company, Inc. v. Little Beaver Mining Corp., 145 W.Va. 653, 116 S.E.2d 394 (1960); Clayton v. Nicely, 116 W.Va. 460, 182 S.E. 569 (1935); Watson v. Buckhannon River Coal Co., 95 W.Va. 164, 120 S.E. 390 (1923). The second assignment of error is likewise without merit.
Having thus confirmed the trial court's judgment that the lease provision in question required construction and, as well, that such construction was properly made in view of the entire agreement, we look to the propriety of that court's substantive decision. At this juncture, we note that it is not the purpose of this review to preempt the nisi prius function of the trial court by our independent construction of the agreement; it is, rather, to sustain such construction in the absence of some showing that the construction was erroneous. See, 5 C.J.S. Appeal & Error § 1566 (1958); Williams v. Ray, 107 Fla. 327, 144 So. 679 (1932); Helie v. Wickersham, 103 Fla. 254, 137 So. 226 (1931).
In the consideration of this lease agreement, as with any other contract, the overriding endeavor must be to ascertain and give effect, if possible, to the mutual intent of the parties. See, Curtis v. Meadows, 84 W.Va. 94, 99 S.E. 286 (1919); Wetterwald v. Woodall, 83 W.Va. 647, 98 S.E. 890 (1919); Garrett v. Patton, 81 W.Va. 771, 95 S.E. 437 (1918); Taylor v. Buffalo Colleries
Traditionally or, at least, historically, it has been widely recognized that the lessor normally assumed the responsibility of preparing the lease agreement. A rule of construction developed upon this recognition, that ambiguity in a lease was to be resolved in favor of the lessee and against the lessor. In Lawson v. West Virginia Newspaper Publishing Co., 126 W.Va. 470, 29 S.E.2d 3 (1944), it was said:
In Carbon Fuel Company v. Gregory, 131 W.Va. 494, 48 S.E.2d 338 (1948), this Court quoted with approval the following statement from Oakwood Smokeless Coal Corporation v. Meadows, 184 Va. 168, 34 S.E.2d 392 (1945):
Fortunately, in applying the foregoing rule, Judge Fox also exposed its underlying rationale:
Thus, closer scrutiny of the "ordinary" rule of construction of leases reveals the application of the more fundamental principle that doubtful provisions of a written instrument should be construed most strongly against the party preparing it. See, Henson v. Lamb, 120 W.Va. 552, 199 S.E. 459 (1938); Charlton v. Chevrolet Motor Co., 115 W.Va. 25, 174 S.E. 570 (1934); Peerless Carbon Black Co. v. Gillespie, 87 W.Va. 441, 105 S.E. 517 (1920). Accordingly, where, as here, ambiguity arises upon the written language chosen by the lessee in drafting the lease agreement, the "ordinary" rule of construction stated in Hacquard, supra, and Lawson, supra, yields to the root principle that doubt is to be resolved most strongly against the party who prepared the instrument—in this case, the lessee.
We believe it is also important to note further the rule of general application that, in the construction of contracts, words or clauses are not to be treated as meaningless or discarded if any reasonable meaning consistent with the other parts of the contract can be given them. As was said in Wood Coal Company, Inc. v. Little Beaver Mining Corp., 145 W.Va. 653, 116 S.E.2d 394 (1960):
This rule, it seems, gives special credence to the trial court's decision which construed the term "assessment" so as to give it meaning compatible with its modifiers within the subject phrase and, as well, within the whole agreement. If, as noted, the word "assessment" had been given its narrow technical signification under the West Virginia statutory scheme, it would have referred to the particular day on
For the foregoing reasons, the circuit court's ruling on this issue cannot be said to have been clearly wrong in its factual findings nor to have been erroneous in its legal conclusions. The court's judgment, therefore, is affirmed on the first issue.
The remaining issue of this case was raised by appellee's cross-assignment of error to the ruling of the trial court denying recovery of reasonable expense and attorneys' fees. In the lease contract, the parties mutually agreed the successful party in an action to enforce the lease or to recover for a breach of the lease should recover from the unsuccessful party, in addition to other appropriate relief, "the reasonable expense and attorneys' fees" as a part of the judgment.
The trial court refused to enforce this provision of the lease contract in favor of Moore, the prevailing party below. In ruling on this point, the court held:
The Poteet decision invalidated a provision in a negotiable instrument requiring the maker to pay attorney fees in the event that court action was necessary for collection of the proceeds of the note. As respects negotiable instruments, that holding has been followed in the subsequent cases of First National Bank of Mannington v. Bank of Mannington, 76 W.Va. 356, 85 S.E. 541 (1915); First National Bank of Pineville v. Sanders, 77 W.Va. 716, 88 S.E. 187 (1916); and Campen Bros. v. Stewart, 106 W.Va. 247, 145 S.E. 381 (1928) and recognized in the recent case of Gavenda Bros., Inc. v. Elkins Limestone Co., Inc., 145 W.Va. 732, 116 S.E.2d 910 (1960).
In the Poteet case, the Court grounded its decision on several bases: (1) lack of consideration, (2) usury, (3) oppression, (4) statutory preemption, and (5) the encouragement of litigation. While the concepts of lack of consideration and usury were, and are, defenses to be considered as respects negotiability of notes and money lending under both the Negotiable Instruments Law and the successor Uniform Commercial Code, such considerations are not relevant in determining the enforceability of covenants in a mutually-agreed-to and freely-bargained-for lease. The legal concept of "oppression" as it was discussed in the Poteet case, also has no relevancy to determinations involving the enforceability of mutual covenants in a commercial lease agreement.
Further, we do not believe the fifth consideration relied upon by the Poteet Court to be pertinent to the enforceability of a mutual covenant contained in a commercial lease agreement. Of course, the law never encourages litigation, but when a man suffers injury to his person or his property, the courts of this State are open for the purpose of peaceful redress of grievances. See W.Va.Const, Art. Ill, § 17. In the context of complex business dealings resulting in the execution of lease agreements, it is to be anticipated, despite the
The most troublesome aspect of the Poteet decision was its direct holding that the Legislature, with the adoption of the predecessor of W.Va.Code, 59-2-14, as amended, provided for the award of statutory attorney fees in the amount of $10.00 per case litigation and by such prescription dealt "fully and comprehensively with the subject and presumptively made what was deemed an adequate provision . . . ." Id. at 514 of the West Virginia Report at 334 of 82 S.E. By this holding, the majority, speaking through Judge Poffenbarger, ruled that West Virginia courts could not enforce a contractual stipulation or agreement for attorney fees as a part of the judgment for damages or costs, in excess of that allowed by statute. The validity of that holding in the context of usury, vis-a-vis the collection of proceeds of promissory notes and commercial paper pursuant to the Negotiable Instruments Law or its successor codification, the Uniform Commercial Code, is not questioned in this appeal.
On the other hand, we cannot believe that it was the intention of the Legislature, in authorizing recovery of a statutory attorney fee, to prohibit the aid of the courts in the enforcement of fair and reasonable contract provisions arrived at by mutual and intelligent bargaining between parties who are adequately informed, and thus well protected, in their legal rights. In fact, there is authority to the contrary in this jurisdiction. An early case, Castle v. Castle, 69 W.Va. 400, 71 S.E. 385 (1911), explicitly recognizes that private persons, by contract, may make special provisions between themselves with regard to court costs and that equity courts would enforce such provisions:
We observe, also, that many other jurisdictions in this Country expressly approve recovery for stipulated attorney fees and expenses of litigation, either in predetermined sums or as established by judgment order, on the basis of reasonableness. See, Annot., 77 A.L.R.2d 735 (1961) and cases cited therein. See also, 17 Am.Jur.2d Contracts § 164 (1964).
We are compelled to recognize the thrust of appellee's contention that public policy, perceived and declared in the early part of this century or in the latter part of the nineteenth century, has the functional value of a cigar store indian in the context of today's sophisticated business bargaining. Rightly or wrongly, the expense of legal services to contemporary litigants is of a magnitude beyond the remotest speculation of the eminent jurists of another time. Contracting parties negotiate and conclude their agreements with full realization of the substantial expense, legal and otherwise, which may be attendant upon controversies
A mutual covenant contained in a commercial lease agreement, providing for the recovery of reasonable attorneys' fees and expense of litigation, available to either party who successfully recovers for breach of the lease contract or enforces its provisions, is valid and enforceable in the courts of this State.
The contrary ruling of the trial court is reversed and this case must be remanded for a judicial determination of reasonable attorneys' fees and reasonable expenses of litigation, if any, recoverable by the appellee Moore.
For the foregoing reasons the decision of the Circuit Court of Kanawha County is affirmed in part, reversed in part, and the case is remanded with directions for disposition in accordance with the principles expressed in this opinion.
Affirmed in part; reversed in part; and remanded with directions.