We are asked in this case to determine whether the petitioner, the City of Seattle (City), falls within the scope of RCW 19.28.120(1), a statute that requires an electrical contractor's license for non-utility electrical work. We hold that the City is an "entity" subject to that statute, and, thus, affirm the Court of Appeals.
The relevant facts in this case are few and not in dispute. The City operates the Seattle Conservation Corps (SCC) through its Department of Housing and Human Services. The SCC prepares "unemployed, homeless adults for transition to full-time employment with sustainable housing." Clerk's Papers (CP) at 4. Its budget is funded through fee-for-service work. One of the SCC's projects is an "electrical project that changes inefficient light fixtures to high efficiency light fixtures in low income multi-family dwellings." CP at 11. The fees for the electrical project services are paid by various government agencies such as the Bonneville Power Administration.
On April 18, 1995, a certified electrical journeyman was installing electrical timers and lights at a work site in Seattle when an electrical inspector from the Department of Labor & Industries (Department) inspected the site and issued a noncompliance citation and stopwork order for an alleged failure to comply with RCW 19.28.120. The City contested the citation, arguing that a city is not an "entity" subject to the licensing requirements of RCW 19.28.120. The Department agreed to remove the stopwork order pending
Despite the Board's adverse ruling, the City filed a complaint in King County Superior Court for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. Again it argued that the City was not subject to RCW 19.28.120(1). After hearing cross motions for summary judgment the trial court granted the Department's motion, holding that "the City of Seattle is an `entity' as that term is used in RCW 19.28 and as such the City shall not engage in non-utility electrical contracting without the required licenses." CP at 185. The City appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals, Division One, which affirmed. City of Seattle v. State, 87 Wn.App. 715, 943 P.2d 337 (1997), review granted, 134 Wn.2d 1024, 958 P.2d 313 (1998). The City sought discretionary review here, and we granted its petition.
We will affirm a trial court's order granting summary judgment only if we are satisfied, after considering the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, that "there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Barnes v. McLendon, 128 Wn.2d 563, 569, 910 P.2d 469 (1996) (citing In re Estates of Hibbard, 118 Wn.2d 737, 744, 826 P.2d 690 (1992)). This is because "[s]ummary judgment exists to examine the sufficiency of legal claims and narrow issues, not as an unfair substitute for trial." Babcock v. State, 116 Wn.2d 596, 599, 809 P.2d 143 (1991). All questions of law are reviewed de novo. Mountain Park Homeowners Ass'n v. Tydings, 125 Wn.2d 337, 341, 883 P.2d 1383 (1994) (citing Syrovy v. Alpine Resources, Inc., 122 Wn.2d 544, 548 n. 3, 859 P.2d 51 (1993)).
As we noted above, there are no relevant facts in dispute. Accordingly, the question of law that we must resolve is whether the City is an "entity" subject to the licensing requirements of RCW 19.28.120(1). The relevant language of the statute is as follows:
It is unlawful for any person, firm, partnership, corporation, or other entity to engage in, conduct, or carry on the business of installing or maintaining wires or equipment to convey electric current, or installing or maintaining equipment to be operated by electric current as it pertains to the electrical industry, without having an ... electrical contractor license, issued by the department in accordance with this chapter.
RCW 19.28.120(1) (emphasis added). The term "other entity" is not defined, and its meaning is not plain—thus making the statute ambiguous. See RCW 19.28.005 (defining terms). Our approach in interpreting ambiguous statutes was well-summarized in Whatcom County v. City of Bellingham, 128 Wn.2d 537, 546, 909 P.2d 1303 (1996):
Dean v. McFarland, 81 Wn.2d 215, 221, 500 P.2d 1244, 74 A.L.R.3d 378 (1972) (citing King County Water Dist. 68 v. Tax Comm'n, 58 Wn.2d 282, 286, 362 P.2d 244 (1961); State v. Thompson, 38 Wn.2d 774, 777, 232 P.2d 87 (1951)). By way of illustration, we have noted that "[t]he ejusdem generis rule is generally applied to general and specific words clearly associated in the same sentence in a pattern such as `[specific], [specific], or [general]' or `[general], including [specific] and [specific].'" Southwest Wash. Ch., Nat'l Elec. Contractors Ass'n v. Pierce County, 100 Wn.2d 109, 116, 667 P.2d 1092 (1983) (alterations in original) (citations omitted). Accordingly, the City contends that because "or other entity" appears within the pattern "any person, firm, partnership, corporation, or other entity," RCW 19.28.120(1), the term must be intended to encompass any unmentioned private business entity. Pet. for Review at 8-9. We disagree. In our view, the Legislature's use of the all-encompassing introductory term "any person" defeats the City's suggestion that the terms preceding "or other entity" refer to private business entities alone. In any event, one authority notes that ejusdem generis applies only when "the statute contains an enumeration by specific words" which suggest a class that "is not exhausted by the enumeration." 2A NORMAN J. SINGER, SUTHERLAND STATUTORY CONSTRUCTION § 47.18, at 200 (5th ed.1992). The sequence of "any person, firm, partnership, corporation," RCW 19.28.120(1), would seem to exhaust all classes of private entities, thus leading to the conclusion that "other entity" refers to public entities such as the City. This contradicts the City's argument that the term "entity" is in danger of being "interpreted to include every entity in the world," Pet. for Review at 9, thus consuming the specific terms used and leaving them meaningless.
The City calls our attention to two cases from the Oregon Court of Appeals as support for its ejusdem generis argument. In one case the court declined to find that a school district was an "other entity" within the scope of a statute defining an "employer." Sullivan v. Kizer, 115 Or.App. 206, 839 P.2d 227 (1992), review denied, 315 Or. 313, 846 P.2d 1161 (1993). Applying the ejusdem generis doctrine, the Oregon court noted that "the general words `or other entity' follow the enumeration of the specific classes of persons, partnerships, firms, corporations and associations, which share the common characteristic of being private entities.... That would exclude public entities." Sullivan, 839 P.2d at 231. Part of this decision, however, was based upon the fact that there already existed "a comprehensive set of laws
The other Oregon case offered in support of the City's ejusdem generis argument is Westwood Homeowners Ass'n v. Lane County, 118 Or.App. 310, 847 P.2d 862, aff'd, 318 Or. 146, 864 P.2d 350 (1993), modified, 318 Or. 327, 866 P.2d 463 (1994). Significantly, however, the subsequent history of that case is that the ejusdem generis doctrine that was determinative at the Oregon Court of Appeals went unmentioned in a much more analytical opinion of the Oregon Supreme Court, in which that court affirmed the Court of Appeals, but did so in reliance upon "indicative" legislative history, a number of policy reasons, and even a constitutional argument to explain why the Oregon Legislature would not have wanted to include "servitudes" within the ambit of the term "encumbrances" in a tax statute. Westwood Homeowners Ass'n, 864 P.2d at 359-60. Thus, the Westwood case is very obviously distinguishable from the present.
Moreover, "[i]t is generally held that the rule of ejusdem generis is merely a rule of construction and is only applicable where legislative intent or language expressing that intent is unclear." 2A SINGER, at 200. We will "seek help in interpreting [a] statutory section by determining legislative intent in the context of the whole statute and its general purpose." Cherry v. Municipality of Metro. Seattle, 116 Wn.2d 794, 800, 808 P.2d 746 (1991) (citing Anderson v. Morris, 87 Wn.2d 706, 716, 558 P.2d 155 (1976)) (emphasis added). Here the intent of the Legislature is readily apparent. In the opening of RCW 19.28.010, for example, the Legislature made it clear that "[a]ll wires and equipment, and installations thereof, that convey electric current and installations of equipment to be operated by electric current, in, on, or about buildings or structures... shall be in strict conformity with this chapter." RCW 19.28.010(1) (emphasis added). Again, "[s]tatutes must be interpreted and construed so that all the language used is given effect, with no portion rendered meaningless or superfluous." Whatcom County, 128 Wash.2d at 546, 909 P.2d 1303 (emphasis added) (citations omitted). RCW 19.28.120(1) must be interpreted consistent with this rule.
The Court of Appeals found compelling the fact that municipal corporations such as the City are not expressly exempted from the coverage of RCW 19.28.120. City of Seattle, 87 Wash.App. at 721, 943 P.2d 337. RCW 19.28.200 exempts utilities. That provision had once expressly exempted "municipal corporation[s]" engaged in certain electrical installation and maintenance work. However, it was amended in 1980, in relevant part, as follows: "No license under the provision of this chapter shall be required from any ((
person, firm, corporation or municipal corporation))
The Department refers us to a 1982 Washington attorney general's opinion (AGO) that construed RCW 19.28 and asserted that "municipalities are still required to be licensed and bonded when performing non-exempt electrical work." CP at 30. There, prior to the addition of the term "other entity" to RCW 19.28.120(1), the attorney general was relying upon a 1922 AGO understanding the term "corporation" to include "municipal corporations" in order to avoid making a then-existing reference to "municipalities" superfluous. See CP at 29-30. The scope of RCW 19.28.120(1) was subsequently amended in 1983, in relevant part, in the following manner: "It ((
shall be)) is unlawful for any person, firm, (( or))
The Court of Appeals noted that the term "other entity" is used throughout RCW 19.28. City of Seattle, 87 Wash.App. at 720, 943 P.2d 337. For example, RCW 19.28.210 describes the Department's duty "to inspect all wiring, appliances, devices, and equipment to which this chapter applies." RCW 19.28.210(1). RCW 19.28.210(3) reads as follows:
(Emphasis added). Would the City seriously argue that the Department must countenance any "danger to life and property" that the City's electrical work poses because the City is not included within the scope of this provision too? For consistency's sake, it must so argue if its assertion vis-a-vis RCW 19.28.120(1) is to be accepted. Instead, however, the City's position appears to be that it need be bound only by those sections of RCW 19.28 which it finds to be convenient. As the Court of Appeals noted, "[g]iven the great importance of allowing the Department to require the correction of dangerous conditions caused by defective installation, the use of `other entity' in these statutes must be broad enough to encompass municipalities engaged in non-utility electrical contracting work." City of Seattle, 87 Wash.App. at 720-21, 943 P.2d 337 (emphasis added).
Finally, the City's best argument is one that was unaddressed by the Court of Appeals, namely that the use of the words "business" and "electrical industry" in RCW 19.28.120(1) excludes "governmental bodies that do not conduct business as a means of livelihood or for profit." Pet. for Review at 11. This is a closer question, but not close enough to vindicate the City's position. We turn again to the language at issue:
RCW 19.28.120(1) (emphasis added). The City cites a Court of Appeals case in which the court turned to a dictionary to define the term "business": "BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY defines `business' as `[e]mployment, occupation, profession, or commercial activity engaged in for gain or livelihood.'" Rogers v. Irving, 85 Wn.App. 455, 463, 933 P.2d 1060 (1997) (citing BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY at 198). Rogers was a much more obvious case, though. There the real question was the meaning of the term "person" within this statutory context: "The term `employer' means any person, firm, corporation, partnership, business trust, legal representative, or other business entity which engages in any business, industry, profession, or activity in this state...." Rogers, 85 Wash.App. at 459, 933 P.2d 1060 (quoting RCW 49.17.020(3)) (emphasis added). As the court noted, within that particular context one had to read "person" in a manner consistent with "all the business-related words the Legislature included in the same sentence." Rogers, 85 Wash.App. at 462, 933 P.2d 1060. Accordingly, a homeowner who hired independent contractors to build his home was found, quite logically, to not be a "person" engaged in "an activity for gain or livelihood." Rogers, 85 Wash.App. at 463, 933 P.2d 1060.
Because it is clear to us that the City of Seattle is an "entity" subject to the licensing requirements of RCW 19.28.120 when it engages in non-utility electrical work, we affirm the Court of Appeals.
DURHAM, C.J., and DOLLIVER, SMITH, GUY, JOHNSON, MADSEN, TALMADGE and SANDERS, JJ., concur.