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Watters v. City of Billings

Supreme Court of Montana

October 29, 2019

ERNIE WATTERS, et al., and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.
CITY OF BILLINGS, Defendant and Appellee.

          Submitted on Briefs: July 17, 2019

          District Court of the Thirteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Yellowstone, Cause No. DV 09-43 Honorable Olivia C. Rieger, Presiding Judge

          For Appellants L. Randall Bishop, Attorney at Law, Missoula, Montana Lawrence A. Anderson, Attorney at Law, Great Falls, Montana

          For Appellee James H. Goetz, Goetz, Baldwin & Geddes, P.C., Bozeman, Montana W. Anderson Forsythe, Afton E. Ball, Moulton Bellingham, PC, Billings,

          Beth Baker Justice

         ¶1 Plaintiffs, current and retired City of Billings police officers ("Officers"), sued the City of Billings ("City") to recover unpaid wages, including longevity pay and other employment benefits, under § 39-3-206, MCA, of Montana's Wage Protection Act ("MWPA"). The parties dispute the meaning of certain provisions in three successive Collective Bargaining Agreements ("CBAs") between the City and the Montana Public Employees Association-Billings Police (the Officers' "Union"). In a prior appeal, we held the language ambiguous and remanded for the District Court to determine whether the City owes the Officers unpaid longevity and other wages, penalties, costs, and attorney fees. The Thirteenth Judicial District Court granted summary judgment to the City. Finding the longevity issue dispositive, the court did not address the remaining claims. The Officers appeal. We restate the dispositive issues as follows:

1. Did the District Court properly consider and apply the extrinsic evidence to determine that the City did not owe unpaid longevity to the Officers?
2. Did the District Court err in dismissing the Officers' non-longevity claims for unpaid straight-time, overtime, and retirement contributions on annual bonus pay?
3. What statute governs the limitations and "look-back" periods for the Officers' claims?
4. Are the Officers entitled to penalties, attorney fees, or costs?

         We affirm the District Court's longevity determination and remand for further consideration of the non-longevity claims applying the appropriate limitations and look-back periods. Consequently, we also remand the issue of fees, costs, and penalties for the District Court to consider after resolving the non-longevity claims.

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         ¶2 The case returns to this Court for a second time on appeal. See Watters v. City of Billings, 2017 MT 211, 388 Mont. 376, 404 P.3d 379 ("Watters I"). We restate the facts applicable to the issues presented.

         ¶3 The City negotiated with the Union the CBAs at issue that govern the terms of the Officers' employment. The three disputed contracts are those in effect from July 1, 2000- July 1, 2003, July 1, 2003-July 1, 2006, and July 1, 2006-July 1, 2009. In 2009, the Officers sued the City, alleging it had miscalculated and underpaid longevity and other wages under the CBAs in violation of the MWPA, § 39-3-206, MCA. The parties advanced competing interpretations of the CBAs. Specifically, they disputed the meaning of the provisions addressing longevity pay. These provisions state as follows:

CBA I (effective July 1, 2000-July 1, 2003): Longevity shall be added to each officer's hourly rate based upon the following formula: .45 x .01 x the hourly rate of an officer at the beginning of year 1 x years of service.
CBA II (effective July 1, 2003-July 1, 2006): Beginning July 1, 2003, longevity shall be added to each officer's hourly rate based upon the following formula: 45 x .01 x the hourly rate of an officer from year 1 to 15 years of service. .50 x .01 x the hourly rate of an officer after year 15.
CBA III (effective July 1, 2006-July 1, 2009): Same as CBA II.[1]

         ¶4 The Officers contended that the longevity provisions were unambiguous, obviating the need to consider extrinsic evidence, and that "years of service" should be measured from the effective date of each CBA. The City insisted that the longevity provisions were ambiguous, requiring extrinsic evidence to prove that the parties' intent at the time of contracting was for "years of service" to include only completed years.

         ¶5 The District Court held that the longevity provisions were unambiguous and that the City had failed to calculate longevity in accordance with the plain language of the CBAs, "at the beginning of year one." It ordered the City to pay the Officers past due longevity, wages, and benefits; imposed a 110% penalty; and awarded the Officers attorney fees and costs.

         ¶6 The City appealed. We reversed the District Court's determination, ruling that both parties presented reasonable interpretations of the longevity provisions, "thus creating a legal ambiguity." Watters I, ¶ 17. We remanded for consideration of extrinsic evidence of the parties' intent, including the parties' history and practice under the CBAs. Watters I, ¶¶ 17, 21. We declined to address additional issues presented in that appeal. Watters I, ¶ 1.

         ¶7 Based upon the extrinsic evidence, the District Court held on remand that "the City of Billings intended that the 'years of service' multiplier would be utilized after completion of the first year of service and was intended to incorporate the multiplier language from 2003-2009. The Union agreed to the calculation, even though the language was inadvertently omitted." Finding this issue dispositive, the court declined to address the Officers' other claims for wages and benefits unrelated to longevity, as well as penalties, costs, and attorney fees, and granted summary judgment to the City.

         STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         ¶8 We review a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the criteria of M. R. Civ. P. 56. Mary J. Baker Revocable Trust v. Cenex Harvest States, Coops., Inc., 2007 MT 159, ¶ 17, 338 Mont. 41, 164 P.3d 851. Summary judgment is appropriate where, based on the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any," no genuine issues of material fact exist and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. M. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(3); Mary J. Baker Revocable Trust, ¶ 17. We review a district court's conclusions of law de novo to determine whether they are correct. Kuhr v. City of Billings, 2007 MT 201, ¶ 13, 338 Mont. 402, 168 P.3d 615.

         DISCUSSION

         ¶9 1. Did the District Court properly consider and apply the extrinsic evidence to determine that the City did not owe unpaid longevity to the Officers?

         ¶10 The Officers assert that the City owes them unpaid longevity because the CBAs make longevity payable at the beginning of each contract year. The City maintains it did not miscalculate the Officers' longevity and urges this Court to affirm.

         ¶11 The construction and interpretation of a contract, including a collective bargaining agreement, are questions of law. Kuhr, ¶ 18; Mary J. Baker Revocable Trust, ¶ 19. Whether an ambiguity exists in a contract also is a question of law. Mary J. BakerRevocable Trust, ¶ 19. An ambiguity exists where the language of the contract as a whole reasonably could be susceptible to two different meanings. Kuhr, ¶ 18. If the language is ambiguous, interpretation of the language requires resolving a question of fact regarding the intent of the parties to the contract. Kuhr, ¶ 18. The mutual intent of the parties is to be ascertained from the writing if possible. Mary J. Baker Revocable Trust, ¶ 21 (quoting § 28-3-303, MCA). The ...


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