One of the plaintiffs below and the appellant herein, the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge Number 69,
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
The plaintiff serves as the collective bargaining unit for police officers employed by the City of Fairmont. On June 24, 1992, a written "Wage and Benefit Agreement" was executed between the parties. The two-year agreement took effect on July 1, 1992, and expired on June 30, 1994. The focus of the dispute between the parties centers on Article 4, Paragraph F of the agreement which provides:
The plaintiff argues that the phrase "a 4% per year wage increase" means that the police officers should have received a 4 percent wage increase in 1992 and another 4 percent wage increase in 1993. On the other hand, the defendants maintain that the police officers were entitled only to a one time 4 percent increase.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
We face a preliminary dispute as to the applicable standard of review.
Since our decision in Williams v. Precision Coil, Inc., 194 W.Va. 52, 459 S.E.2d 329 (1995), there can be no doubt that it is for a trial court to determine whether the terms of an integrated agreement are unambiguous and, if so, to construe the contract according to its plain meaning. In this sense, questions about the meaning of contractual provisions are questions of law, and we review a trial court's answers to them de novo. 194 W.Va. at 65 n. 23, 459 S.E.2d at 342 n. 23, citing Thrift v. Hubbard, 44 F.3d 348, 357-58 (5th Cir.1995). However, when a trial court's answers rest not on plain meaning but on differential findings by a trier of fact, derived from extrinsic evidence as to the parties' intent with regard to an uncertain contractual provision, appellate review proceeds under the "clearly erroneous" standard. The same standard pertains whenever a trial court decides factual matters that are essential to ascertaining the parties' rights in a particular situation (though not dependent on the meaning of the contractual terms per se). In these types of cases, the issues are ordinarily fact-dominated rather than lawdominated and, to that extent, the trial court's resolution of them is entitled to deference.
These principles resonate here. The defendants attempt to escape from their contractual obligation by arguing that the contract was ambiguous and, therefore, as the trial court found, a factual question as to the parties' intent was presented. Under these circumstances, appellate review would be circumscribed by the jurisprudence of clear error.
On September 19, 1994, the plaintiff filed a post-trial motion for a directed verdict.
We approach these contentions mindful that the agreement, signed by both parties, represents the essence of long and hard labor negotiations between the parties and is subject to interpretation in accordance with the tenets of West Virginia common law. In construing the terms of a contract, we are guided by the common-sense canons of contract interpretation. One such canon teaches that contracts containing unambiguous language must be construed according to their plain and natural meaning. Payne v. Weston, 195 W.Va. 502, 507, 466 S.E.2d 161, 166 (1985). Contract language usually is considered ambiguous where an agreement's terms are inconsistent on their face or where the phraseology can support reasonable differences of opinion as to the meaning of words employed and obligations undertaken.
Thus, we are to ascertain the meaning of the agreement as manifested by its language. Our task is not to rewrite the terms of contact between the parties; instead, we are to enforce it as written. We stated in Syllabus Point 2 of Bennett v. Dove, 166 W.Va. 772, 277 S.E.2d 617 (1981):
"`It is not the right or province of a court to alter, pervert or destroy the clear meaning and intent of the parties as expressed in unambiguous language in their written contract or to make a new or different contract for them.' Cotiga Development Co. v. United Fuel Gas Co., 147 W.Va. 484, 128 S.E.2d 626 (1962), Syllabus Point 3."
If language in a contract is found to be plain and unambiguous, such language should be applied according to such meaning.
The defendants strive to topple this edifice, contending that reasonable minds may disagree over the correct interpretation of the phrase "a 4% per year wage increase[.]" The defendants state, for example, that one interpretation may be like the position taken
We begin this analytic segment by laying a straw man to rest. According to Black's Law Dictionary 1145 (6th ed.1990), the phrase "per year" "[i]n a contract is the equivalent to the word `annually.'" This definition was announced in our country's jurisprudence at least as early as 1868. See Curtiss v. Howell, 39 N.Y. 211 (1868); see also Larson v. Augustana Colonization Ass'n of N. Am., 155 Minn. 1, 192 N.W. 108 (1923) (ordinarily the words "per year" "mean `annually' or `by the year.'" Citing Curtiss, supra). In an analogous case to the present one, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, ruled in Werner v. Republic Yeast Corp., 264 A.D. 908, 35 N.Y.S.2d 812, 813 (1942), that "the words `per week'" in a contract were not ambiguous and "must be taken in their ordinary sense and mean each and every week."
In Werner, the plaintiff and defendant entered into an employment contract whereby the plaintiff agreed to sell a certain amount of yeast "per week" or the contract could be cancelled by the defendant. 35 N.Y.S.2d at 813. The plaintiff was fired after he failed to sell the specified amount. 35 N.Y.S.2d at 813. Believing the contract was ambiguous, the lower court admitted parol evidence which tended to show, in part, that the phrase "per week" meant the sales were to be averaged over a number of weeks. 35 N.Y.S.2d at 813. The Supreme Court reversed finding the phrase "per week" was not ambiguous and the admission of the parol evidence "had the effect of re-writing the contract and making a new one more favorable to the plaintiff under the guise of construction." 35 N.Y.S.2d at 813. The Supreme Court further stated "[i]f the plaintiff made an extravagant promise he cannot be relieved under the pretense that his promise is ambiguous." 35 N.Y.S.2d at 813.
In the present case, we find no merit to the defendants' claim that the phrase "a 4% per year wage increase" is ambiguous. Certainly, if we take out the critical language "per year" the contract language would read "a 4% . . . wage increase" and may be interpreted as only one increase. However, the contract specifically includes the words "per year," and we cannot dismiss the plain and unambiguous definition of that phrase. If we substitute the equivalent word "annual" for the words "per year," it is clear that the police officers were entitled to "a 4% [annual] wage increase[.]" The only reasonable interpretation of the disputed language we can conceive is that the contract provided for a 4 percent wage increase each and every year of the contract. See Williams, 194 W.Va. at 65 n. 23, 459 S.E.2d at 342 n. 23. As we implied in Syllabus Point 2 of Bennett, supra, and as the court expressed in Werner, supra, we cannot rewrite the language of the contract under the pretense of construction for the defendants to receive a more favorable result.
Moreover, in Syllabus Point 1 of International Nickel Co., Inc. v. Commonwealth Gas Corp., 152 W.Va. 296, 163 S.E.2d 677 (1968), we stated:
"`The mere fact that parties do not agree to the construction of a contract does not render it ambiguous. The question as to whether a contract is ambiguous
Admittedly, the plaintiff and the defendants do not agree on the construction of the disputed contract language, but this disagreement does not render the language ambiguous. We find the trial court should have determined as a matter of law that the phrase "a 4% per year wage increase" is not ambiguous and means the police officers are entitled to a 4 percent wage increase each and every year of the contract.
The defendants contended at oral argument that the concluding language "effective the first day of the fiscal year beginning immediately after execution of this agreement" is sufficient to limit the pay increase to one year because it speaks only to one year and not "years." This argument has the shrill ring of desperation. The defendants' mental gymnastics are indeed nimble, but an accepted canon of construction forbids the balkanization of contracts for interpretive purposes. See Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 202 cmt. d at 88 (1981) (explaining that "[w]here the whole can be read to give significance to each part, that reading is preferred"). Here, when the phrase "effective the first day of the fiscal year beginning immediately after execution of this agreement" is read in the full context of the sentence, the language is not ambiguous at all. The preceding words spell out precisely the times and the amounts of pay raises the police officers were to receive in this executed agreement. Simply stated, the pay increase is "4% per year." Viewed against this backdrop, it is pellucid that the later use of the "effective . . . day" terminology refers only to when the first pay raise was to commence. We conclude from what is written within the four corners of the agreement the term "4% per year" simply and unambiguously describes that each year of the contract the police were to receive a 4 percent wage increase.
The defendants have presented us with an artful reading of the agreement, but that reading belies the plain meaning of the contract as a whole. The agreement is clear, and lengthy judicial proceedings do not make it any clearer. This Court refuses to rewrite the contract to favor the defendants. There being no other issue before the trial court, it then should have granted the plaintiff's motion for a directed verdict.
For the foregoing reasons, we reverse the final order of the Circuit Court of Marion County and remand this case to the trial
Reversed and remanded.