In this appeal, we are called upon to determine whether Maryland Code (1977, 1992 Repl.Vol., 1996 Cum.Supp.) § 13-114(e) of the Transportation Article,
Appellant Marriott Employees Federal Credit Union (Marriott) is a Maryland-based federal credit union with members nationwide. On August 4, 1994, Barbara Houston, a Texas resident and credit union member, borrowed $1700.00 from Marriott. She secured the loan with a 1984 Chevrolet Camaro automobile. The most current certificate of title for the 1984 Chevrolet was issued by the State of Texas in the name of Thomas Arnold, a resident of Austin, Texas. Apparently, the car was never titled in Ms. Houston's name and Marriott never perfected its security interest by noting the lien on the certificate of title. See TEX. TRANSP. CODE ANN. § 501.111(a) (security interest in automobile perfected by notation on certificate of title).
In late 1995, Houston defaulted on the loan and Marriott repossessed the vehicle in Texas on December 21, 1995. The automobile was then transported to Maryland because, according to Marriott's counsel, Marriott was unable to get a new certificate of title in Texas. Pursuant to § 13-114(e) and in accordance with its usual procedure, Marriott applied to the MVA for a new certificate of title, often called a repossession title or a "repo" title, for the repossessed Chevrolet. Marriott presented to the MVA the security agreement, the notices sent to Houston advising her of the redemption period and a copy of the condition report prepared by the repossessor, but the MVA refused to issue the repossession title. A representative of the MVA informed Marriott that the MVA would not issue a repossession title on the Chevrolet unless Marriott secured a court order directing the MVA to do so.
Marriott then filed a declaratory judgment action in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. In its complaint for declaratory relief, Marriott asked the circuit court to order the MVA "[t]o issue a Maryland title to a 1984 Chevrolet Camaro Automobile ... in the name of the Plaintiff, Marriott Federal Employees Credit Union" and, more broadly, "[t]o issue a repossession title in favor of the Plaintiff, Marriott Employees Federal Credit Union, for any vehicle repossessed by the Plaintiff that was not previously titled in the State of Maryland, ... provided that the Plaintiff supplies the Defendant with the certification as required by Transportation § 13-114(e) of the Annotated Code of Maryland."
At trial, Marriott portrayed the MVA's refusal to issue a repossession title on the Chevrolet as an abrupt change in a long-standing administrative policy. According to Troy Cooper, the collection supervisor for Marriott, the MVA, over the past several years, consistently issued repossession titles in similar cases when presented with the documentation that Marriott had presented here. Marriott introduced a letter dated November 24, 1995, signed by James E. Hose, Director of the Vehicle Registration Division. The letter reads:
The MVA, on the other hand, insisted that there had been no change in policy. Although inconsistent with the November 24, 1995, letter, Rhonda Witt, Chief of Vehicle Registration, testified that the MVA will accept out-of-state repossessions and issue repossession titles as long as the foreign state's repossession procedures have been fulfilled. Ms. Witt also stated that Marriott's failure to present a Texas title in the name of their debtor and with their lien noted on it precluded Marriott from obtaining a Maryland title.
Section 13-114 addresses the titling and registration of automobiles that have been involuntarily transferred by way of, inter alia, judicial sale or disposition in a will. Section 13-114(e) addresses one particular type of involuntary transfer—the transfer of the vehicle from the owner to a secured party pursuant to a repossession.
(i) That the secured party has a security interest in the vehicle;
(ii) That, on the basis of the security agreement or other lawful basis, the secured party has a right to the possession of and title to the vehicle;
(iii) That the secured party has possession of the vehicle; and
(iv) Any other information that the Administration requires.
(2) On submission of the certification to it, the Administration may issue a new certificate of title if it is satisfied that the secured party is entitled to one. (emphasis added).
Ultimately at issue in this appeal is the phrase "transfer on its records the ownership of a vehicle that has been repossessed." Specifically, we must decide whether the General Assembly intended this phrase to limit the applicability of § 13-114(e) to those repossessed vehicles that are titled in Maryland at the time of the repossession. Marriott contends that the disputed phrase merely means that the MVA shall place such ownership on its records. The MVA, on the other hand, contends that "transfer on its records" requires an existing title record in Maryland before ownership can be transferred on the records to the secured party.
Our task in this case is one of statutory construction. The cardinal rule of statutory construction is to ascertain and carry out the intention of the Legislature. State v. Pagano, 341 Md. 129, 133, 669 A.2d 1339, 1340 (1996). Our search for legislative intent begins, and usually ends, with the words of the statute at issue. Schuman, Kane v. Aluisi, 341 Md. 115, 119, 668 A.2d 929, 931 (1995). When the statutory language is clear, we need not look beyond the statutory language to determine the Legislature's intent. Kaczorowski v. Mayor and City Council
Sometimes the statutory language is susceptible of more than one meaning. When faced with an ambiguity, courts must consider not only the literal or usual meaning of the words but also the meaning of words in light of the statute as a whole and within the context of the objectives and purposes of the enactment. Romm v. Flax, 340 Md. 690, 693, 668 A.2d 1, 2 (1995). Common sense must guide us in our interpretation of statutes, and "we seek to avoid constructions that are illogical, unreasonable, or inconsistent with common sense." Frost v. State, 336 Md. 125, 137, 647 A.2d 106, 112 (1994). Although this Court is not limited to the literal or usual meaning of statutory language, Romm, 340 Md. at 693, 668 A.2d at 2, the Court may not insert or omit terms to make a statute express an intention not reflected in the statute's original form. Bridges v. Nicely, 304 Md. 1, 10-11, 497 A.2d 142, 147 (1985); Police Comm'r v. Dowling, 281 Md. 412, 419, 379 A.2d 1007, 1011 (1977).
The consistent and long-standing construction given a statute by the agency charged with administering it is entitled to great deference, Balto. Gas & Elec. v. Public Serv. Comm'n, 305 Md. 145, 161-62, 501 A.2d 1307, 1315 (1986), as the agency is likely to have expertise and practical experience with the statute's subject matter. See, e.g., Sinai Hosp. v. Dept. of Employment, 309 Md. 28, 46, 522 A.2d 382, 391 (1987); 2B N. SINGER, SUTHERLAND STATUTORY CONSTRUCTION, § 49.05, at 17 (5th ed. 1993). The weight given an agency's construction of a statute depends on several factors—the duration and consistency of the administrative practice, the degree to which the agency's construction was made known to the public, and the degree to which the Legislature was aware of the administrative construction when it reenacted the relevant statutory language. Magan v. Medical Mutual, 331 Md. 535, 546, 629 A.2d 626, 632 (1993). Other important considerations include "the extent to which the agency engaged in a process of reasoned elaboration in formulating its interpretation" and "the nature of the process through which the agency arrived at its interpretation," with greater weight placed on those agency interpretations that are the product of adversarial proceedings or formal rules promulgation. Balto. Gas & Elec., 305 Md. at 161-62, 501 A.2d at 1315. An administrative agency's construction of the statute is not entitled to deference, however, when it conflicts with the unambiguous statutory language. Falik v. Prince George's Hosp., 322 Md. 409, 416, 588 A.2d 324, 327 (1991). See generally 2A SINGER, supra, § 45.12.
The phrase under scrutiny in this case, "transfer on its records the ownership," does not appear elsewhere in the Maryland Code and we find no reported opinions interpreting this language. Section 13-114(e), and its precursors, have been part of the Maryland Code since 1970. Senate Bill 10 of the 1970 legislative session first introduced a provision dedicated exclusively to repossession titles, which was then codified as Art. 66 ½, § 3-114(c).
There are at least two competing interpretations of the statutory language at issue in this case. One interpretation is that by
We look to dictionary definitions of the verb "transfer" for insight into the legislative intent. Although dictionary definitions do not provide dispositive resolutions of the meaning of statutory terms, see Morris v. Prince George's County, 319 Md. 597, 606, 573 A.2d 1346, 1350 (1990), "dictionaries ... do provide a useful starting point for determining what statutory terms mean, at least in the abstract, by suggesting what the legislature could have meant by using particular terms." 2A SINGER, supra, § 47.28 (1996 Cum.Supp.). Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines "transfer" as a transitive verb meaning, inter alia, to "carry or take from one person or place to another" and "to cause to pass from one person or thing to another." WEBSTER'S THIRD NEW INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY 2427 (1961). Black's Law Dictionary defines transfer as a verb meaning "[t]o convey or remove from one place, person, etc., to another; pass or hand over from one to another; specifically, to change over the possession or control of...." BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY 1497(6th ed. 1990).
The word "transfer" appears frequently in the Maryland Code, but the phrase "transfer on its records" does not appear elsewhere in the Code. Title 13 of the Transportation Article, dedicated to titling and registration of vehicles, refers frequently to the "transfer" of vehicles and the "transfer" of vehicle registrations. See, e.g., § 13-112, Transfer of vehicles generally; § 13.502.1, Transfer to another vehicle ("The former registered owner of a transferred vehicle may have its plates and registration number transferred to another vehicle...."). In the case of the transfer of vehicles, the car passes from one person to another. In the case of registration, the registration passes from one vehicle to another. The meaning of the word "transfer" may be free from ambiguity in some contexts, such as the transfer of a vehicle or the transfer of a registration, yet be ambiguous in another context, such as the phrase "transfer on its records." See Tucker v. Fireman's Fund Ins. Co., 308 Md. 69, 74, 517 A.2d 730, 732 (1986).
"Transfer" must be read in conjunction with "on its records." We reject the MVA's contention that "on its records" should be construed as "based on its records" and interpreted to mean that the transfer of ownership can only occur when there is a pre-existing Maryland title. We find it more plausible that the Legislature found it necessary to modify the verb "transfer" with the adverbial phrase "on its records" because the direct object of "transfer," i.e., ownership, had already been transferred under the terms of the security agreement. Thus, we find that the phrase "transfer on its records" describes the MVA's ministerial duties when presented with an application for a repossession title, i.e., to note on its records the transfer of the repossessed vehicle. We find this to be a more reasonable interpretation of "transfer on its records" than an interpretation further restricting a secured party's entitlement to a repossession title. We hold that § 13-114(e) does not preclude the MVA from issuing repossession titles to cars titled out-of-state so long as the other requirements of § 13-114(e) have been satisfied.
The General Assembly could have explicitly limited the availability of repossession titles to those vehicles that were titled in Maryland prior to the repossession. The General Assembly has specified elsewhere in the Transportation Article that certain provisions apply only to vehicles titled in this state. See, e.g., § 13-506(c)(1) (governing application process that insurance companies must follow to receive salvage certificates for "vehicle[s] titled in the State" (emphasis added)); § 13-810(22)(c) (providing that "[o]n transfer of a vehicle titled in this State and issuance of a subsequent certificate of title" certain vehicles are exempt from the excise tax (emphasis added)).
Id. at 161-62, 501 A.2d at 1315; see also Magan v. Medical Mutual, 331 Md. 535, 547, 629 A.2d 626, 632 (1993). In this case, we find no long-standing and consistent agency interpretation that is entitled to deference. See Comptroller v. John C. Louis Co., 285 Md. 527, 545, 404 A.2d 1045, 1056 (1979).
To be sure, § 13-114(e) confers significant discretion on the MVA in determining what information shall be required and who is entitled to repossession titles.
Because we hold that "transfer on its records" in § 13-114(e) does not require that
JUDGMENT OF THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR MONTGOMERY COUNTY REVERSED. CASE REMANDED TO THAT COURT FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS CONSISTENT WITH THIS OPINION. COSTS TO BE PAID BY APPELLEE.