ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Judicial Disagreement Over Contract Ambiguity: When Are Things OBVIOUS?

We've been talking about contract interpretation in my Contracts class lately and I'm always struck by how many cases involve a lower court ruling of ambiguity and then an appellate court reversal of that ruling, because it always strikes me as such a funny thing. The very definition of ambiguity would seem to be "multiple people disagreeing on the meaning of the word," but the appellate court decisions in those cases necessarily have to dismiss the reasonableness of the lower court's understanding of the meaning in order to assert that the meaning is SO OBVIOUS. This always makes these cases feel a little more...condescending? Than the typical reversal. Like, "We don't know what you were so confused about, lower court, this is OBVIOUS." 

A recent case out of California, Borgwat v. Shasta Union Elementary School District, No. C078692, is another example of this. The plaintiff, upon retiring from the defendant, was entitled to a monthly post-retirement contribution toward her "medical insurance coverage." For a couple of years, the defendant paid the contribution toward the plaintiff's dental and vision coverage. But then the defendant concluded that dental and vision insurance was not included in "medical insurance coverage" and ceased paying the contribution. This lawsuit resulted. 

The lower court found the phrase "medical insurance coverage" to be ambiguous and allowed extrinsic evidence to illuminate its definition, including the fact that the defendant had initially paid the plaintiff the contribution for a few years. Therefore, the lower court endorsed the plaintiff's interpretation that "medical insurance coverage" included dental and vision insurance. 

The appellate court here reversed, though, saying that "medical insurance coverage" was not an ambiguous term. The relevant section of the contract was Section 5.7 but the appellate court looked to Section 5.2, which dealt with benefits during the course of employment. In that section, the defendant had agreed to pay sums "toward the cost of medical, dental and vision benefit coverage." The fact that dental and vision were considered independent from medical insurance in Section 5.2 rendered the use of "medical insurance" in Section 5.7 unambiguous: It can't include dental and vision insurance, because the parties in Section 5.2 revealed that they didn't understand medical to include dental and vision insurance when they felt it necessary to list all three. For this reason, the appellate court refused to allow any extrinsic evidence, because the defendant's mistake in paying for the dental and vision insurance could not change the unambiguous terms of the contract. 

So there you have it. OBVIOUSLY. :-)

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