Petitioner Charles L. Anania, by counsel Joshua I. Barrett and Robert M. Bastress III, appeals the order of the Circuit Court of Pocahontas County, entered March 25, 2013, granting summary judgment in favor of Respondent Snowshoe Mountain, Inc. Respondent appears by counsel John Philip Melick, Ellen S. Cappellanti, and Ryan J. Aaron.
This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.
Petitioner is the representative property owner in this class action challenging the method in which respondent, a resort area, calculates annual assessments for safety provisions and the upkeep of common areas in its domain.
The declaration was drafted by respondent's predecessor; respondent has owned Snowshoe Mountain Resort since 1995.
Petitioner appeals the circuit court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the respondent. This Court reviews a circuit court's entry of summary judgment under a de novo standard of review. Syl. Pt. 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994). In conducting a de novo review, this Court applies the same standard for granting summary judgment that a circuit court must apply. United Bank, Inc. v. Blosser, 218 W.Va. 378, 383, 624 S.E.2d 815, 820 (2005). Further, "[s]ummary judgment is appropriate if, from the totality of the evidence presented, the record could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, such as where the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of the case that it has the burden to prove." Syl. Pt. 2, Williams v. Precision Coil, Inc., 194 W.Va. 52, 459 S.E.2d 329 (1995). "`[T]he party opposing summary judgment must satisfy the burden of proof by offering more than a mere `scintilla of evidence' and must produce evidence sufficient for a reasonable jury to find in a nonmoving party's favor.' Anderson [v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.], 477 U.S.  at 252, 106 S.Ct.  at 2512, 91 L.E.2d  at 214 ." Williams, 194 W.Va. at 60, 459 S.E.2d at 337. We also reiterate: "The interpretation of [a] . . . contract, including the question of whether the contract is ambiguous, is a legal determination that, like a lower court's grant of summary judgment, shall be reviewed de novo on appeal." Syl. Pt. 2, Riffe v. Home Finders Assocs., Inc., 205 W.Va. 216, 517 S.E.2d 313 (1999). It is a settled principle, long recognized in this state that "`[i]t is the province of the [c]ourt, and not of the jury, to interpret a written contract.' Syl. Pt. 1, Stephens v. Bartlett, 118 W.Va. 421, 191 S.E. 550 (1937)." Syl. Pt. 1, Orteza v. Monongalia County General Hospital, 173 W.Va. 461, 318 S.E.2d 40 (1984).
Petitioner puts forth four assignments of error on appeal, all concerning the circuit court's interpretation of the declaration. We begin our discussion with the following basic principles:
Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge No. 69 v. City of Fairmont, 196 W.Va. 97, 101, 468 S.E.2d 712, 716 (1996). In syllabus point one of Berkeley County Public Service District v. Vitro Corp. of America, 152 W.Va. 252, 162 S.E.2d 189 (1968), this Court cautioned that "[t]he 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 is a question of law to be determined by the court." Accord Pilling v. Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 201 W.Va. 757, 759, 500 S.E.2d 870, 872 (1997). Construction of the language is undertaken only when it is determined that an actual ambiguity exists. "Only if the court makes the determination that the contract cannot be given a certain and definite legal meaning, and is therefore ambiguous, can a question of fact be submitted to the jury as to the meaning of the contract. It is only when the document has been found to be ambiguous that the determination of intent through extrinsic evidence becomes a question of fact." Payne v. Weston, 195 W.Va. 502, 507, 466 S.E.2d 161, 166 (1995).
First, petitioner argues that the circuit court "changed" contractual language by omitting Paragraph D from its reading of the applicable declaration. In that vein, he argues in his fourth assignment of error that the circuit court erred when it made the unsupported factual determination that the inclusion of Paragraph D in respondent's predecessor's draft of the declaration was the result of mistake. It is worth noting that petitioner purchased property in the resort area in 2003, and respondent purchased Snowshoe Mountain in 1995. Neither participated in the drafting of the declaration in 1974, and the parties concede that there is no evidence of the drafter's intent. However, Paragraph C unequivocally grants respondent "absolute and sole discretion" to annually calculate assessments up to 1.5% of the assessed taxable value of the lot.
We now consider petitioner's third assignment of error, in which he argues that the circuit court failed to apply rules of construction favoring him. As the circuit court aptly explained, the instrument must be construed against the grantor only if the language is ambiguous after consideration of the context and circumstances surrounding the contract formation. McIntyre v. Zara, 183 W.Va. 202, 206, 394 S.E.2d 897, 901 (1990). Upon the circuit court's acknowledgement that Paragraph D was clearly included by mistake, the terms of the declarations had but one meaning. As we concluded in Pilling, "[a]lthough the contract at issue in the present case is poorly drafted, its meaning can still be discerned." Pilling at 759, 500 S.E.2d at 872.
For the foregoing reasons, we affirm.
Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis, Justice Margaret L. Workman and Justice Allen H. Loughry II, concurred.
Justice Brent D. Benjamin, Dissenting.
MENIS E. KETCHUM, Justice.
The circuit court attempted to clarify an ambiguous contract as if the contract were affected by a simple scrivener's error. In reality, we are faced with a substantive dispute that requires greater attention than such treatment allows. While I acknowledge the difficulty (attributable to a lack of historical evidence) facing a fact-finder in this case, I believe the result reached by the circuit court unfairly affords a presumption to the drafting party. I do not find it unreasonable that early purchasers may have wished to establish some degree of control over their assessments. The characterization of the attempt as a mistake is perplexing, particularly in view of a similar provision having been incorporated in the counterpart document for the sale of condominium properties only three years after drafting of the 1974 declaration. The terms are substantively confusing and capable of multiple interpretations, and therefore would be more appropriately untangled by a jury.
Trautman v. Hill, 116 Idaho 337, 340, 775 P.2d 651, 654 (Idaho App.1989) (citations omitted).