No Comma, No Judgment for Plaintiff

(Watch your Language with Statutes and Ordinances; Grammar Counts)

As established in other “Watch Your Language” articles for this Blog, as a general rule, courts will uphold language in commercial agreements, unless it is contrary to statutory law or public policy. Because of this judicial deference to “commercial language”, you must say what you mean, precisely, or a judge will decide what you meant. Compounding the problem is the fact that courts typically refuse to consider extrinsic evidence of a party’s intent (offered by such party) if they determine the contract language is clear and unambiguous. What is said within the “four corners of the agreement” is simply deemed the best evidence of intent.  Even the failure to follow a seemingly trivial grammar rule (the use of i.e. vs. e.g.) can result in unintended consequences. In a 1995 Connecticut case, in spite of the tenant’s verbalized intent to the contrary, the court held that the use of “i.e.” [meaning, that is] vs. e.g. [meaning, for example] preceding a short list of repair items in a lease served to limit landlord’s structural responsibility to only those items listed in the lease vs. merely providing examples of the same.

Saying what you mean, precisely, is as important in drafting statutes and ordinances as it is in commercial agreements. As a general rule, courts will also uphold clear and unambiguous statutory language.Statutes clear in their terms need no interpretation; they simply need application. If the inquiry into language of a statute reveals that the statute conveys a meaning which is clear, unequivocal and definite, at that point the interpretative effort is at an end, and the statute must be applied accordingly." Provident Bank v. Wood (1973), 36 Ohio St. 2d 101, 105-106.

The Village of West Jefferson recently discovered these axioms (“what is written = what is intended” and “grammar counts”) the hard way, in W. Jefferson v. Cammelleri, 2015-Ohio-2463, a 12th District Ohio Court of Appeals case that was decided on the basis of the lack of a comma.

In Cammelleri, Defendant-appellant, Andrea Cammelleri’s pickup truck was towed from a parking space in front of her house, and impounded. Cammelleri was cited for violating West Jefferson Codified Ordinance Section 351.16(a), which states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to park upon any street in the Village, any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle for a continued period of twenty-four hours …” Ms. Cammelleri contested the citation, and in March, 2014, the matter proceeded to trial.

At trial, Cammelleri argued that the ordinance did not apply because the language prohibits a “motor vehicle camper” from being parked on the street for an extended period of time, and a truck is not a motor vehicle camper.  The village contended that the actual wording of the ordinance did apply because a comma was inadvertently omitted between the phrase "motor vehicle" and the word "camper."   The trial court found for the village, holding that when reading the ordinance in the context of its intent, it applied to motor vehicles and campers, and "anybody reading [the ordinance] would understand that it is just missing a comma.

On appeal to the 12th District Ohio Court of Appeals, Ms. Cammelleri repeated the argument she made to the trial court, namely that her pickup truck was not subject to the ordinance, because her pickup truck does not constitute a “motor vehicle camper” as identified by the ordinance.

The village argued that because of an unintended clerical error, a comma was missing between the phrase "motor vehicle" and the word "camper," and consequently, the ordinance should apply, as intended to Cammelleri's pickup truck as a motor vehicle. 

The 12th District Court of Appeals agreed with one tenet acknowledged by both parties; that when called on to interpret statutes and ordinances, “the paramount concern is determining legislative intent in enacting the statute.”

However, the court emphasized that the basic rules for statutory interpretation (in effect, “what is written = what is intended” and “grammar counts”) should apply.  According to the court, “[we must] discern this intent by looking at the language used in the statute itself, we must read words and phrases in context and construe them in accordance with rules of grammar and common usage. [I]f such intent is clearly expressed therein, the statute may not be restricted, constricted, qualified, narrowed, enlarged or abridged (citing State ex rel. McGraw v. Gorman, 17 Ohio St.3d147, 149 (1985)).  In other words, the court reasoned that “if the meaning is unambiguous and definite, then the statute is to be applied as written and needs no further interpretation (citing State ex rel. Herman v. Klopfleisch, 72 Ohio St.3d 581, 584 (1995)).

Based upon these well-established laws of construction, the court in Cammelleri held that the intent of the ordinance is plain from the grammar and language used in West Jefferson Codified Ordinances 351.16(a), and accordingly, agreed with Ms. Cammelleri’s arguments.  As elaborated on by the court, “According to ordinary grammar rules, items in a series are normally separated by comma. However, no such comma exists…If the village desires a different reading, it should amend the ordinance and insert a comma between the phrase "motor vehicle" and the word "camper." As written, however, legislative intent is clear from looking at the language used in the ordinance itself.”

What is the moral of this story? Whether you are drafting commercial agreements, or statutory law, dot your i’s, cross your t’s, and don’t forget your commas. Grammar counts!

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