ERNIE WATTERS, et al., and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs and Appellants,
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
Appellants L. Randall Bishop, Attorney at Law, Missoula,
Montana Lawrence A. Anderson, Attorney at Law, Great Falls,
Appellee James H. Goetz, Goetz, Baldwin & Geddes, P.C.,
Bozeman, Montana W. Anderson Forsythe, Afton E. Ball, Moulton
Bellingham, PC, Billings,
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
3. What statute governs the limitations and
"look-back" periods for the Officers'
4. Are the Officers entitled to penalties, attorney fees,
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.
AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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 ...