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Northern Excavating Co., Inc v. Sisters of Mary of the Presentation Long Term Care

April 10, 2012

NORTHERN EXCAVATING CO., INC.,
PLAINTIFF, APPELLEE, AND CROSS-APPELLANT
v.
SISTERS OF MARY OF THE PRESENTATION LONG TERM CARE, D/B/A/ AVE MARIA VILLAGE,
DEFENDANT, APPELLANT, AND CROSS-APPELLEE



Appeal from the District Court of Stutsman County, Southeast Judicial District, the Honorable Jay A. Schmitz, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Maring, Justice.

N.D. Supreme CourtNorthern Excavating v. Sisters of Mary of the Presentation,

2012 ND 78

This opinion is subject to petition for rehearing. [Go to Documents]

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AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, AND REMANDED. Opinion of the Court by Maring, Justice.

[¶1] Sisters of Mary of the Presentation Long Term Care, d/b/a Ave Maria Village ("Sisters of Mary"), appeals, and Northern Excavating Co., Inc. ("Northern") cross-appeals from the trial court's judgment awarding Northern $81,694.23 plus interest at 1.5 percent and costs at $743.33, and awarding Sisters of Mary $3,231.00 in attorney's fees. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.

I

[¶2] In October of 2009, Sisters of Mary and Northern executed a contract wherein Northern agreed to repair a water main break on Sisters of Mary's property for the cost of its "[t]ime and [m]aterials[.]" The contract did not contain a specific price. Following completion of the repairs, Northern submitted a bill for $103,244.11 to Sisters of Mary. Sisters of Mary found the bill excessive and refused to pay, asserting the repairs only had a value of approximately $40,000.

[¶3] Northern filed a construction lien covering the repaired property and sued Sisters of Mary seeking $98,806.98 for breach of contract and foreclosure of the lien. Sisters of Mary answered and counterclaimed alleging breach of contract, unlawful sales practices, and invalid construction lien/slander of title. Sisters of Mary also sought a jury trial. By stipulation, issues relating to the foreclosure of the construction lien were reserved and not submitted to the jury. The jury returned a verdict awarding Northern $81,694.23 plus interest at 1.5 percent for time and materials provided under the contract. After the verdict was rendered, Sisters of Mary applied for its costs and attorney's fees. In its post-trial brief, Sisters of Mary claimed it successfully challenged Northern's lien and argued the court was required, under N.D.C.C. § 35-27-24.1, to award it all of its attorney's fees and costs, $33,477.09, associated with the action. In its own post-trial brief, Northern argued it was unreasonable to require lienholders to pay costs and attorney's fees when a lienholder does not recover the precise amount claimed in a lien. The trial court ultimately awarded Sisters of Mary a portion of its attorney's fees, $3,231.00, explaining it was a reasonable award given Sisters of Mary failed to specify "any fees that were directly related to the construction lien issue[.]" The trial court also found Northern was the prevailing party and awarded it $743.33 of its costs under N.D.C.C. § 28-06-06. Sisters of Mary appeals, arguing the trial court misapplied the law by not awarding it the full amount of its attorney's fees and costs for the successful defense of a construction lien under N.D.C.C. § 35-27-24.1. Sisters of Mary also argues the trial court erred by finding Northern was the prevailing party and entitled to costs. Northern cross-appeals, arguing the trial court misapplied the law in awarding Sisters of Mary any attorney's fees and costs because Northern was the prevailing party and the lien was not inaccurate.

II

[¶4] Both parties' arguments on appeal involve statutory interpretation. "Interpretation of a statute is a question of law, fully reviewable on appeal." Wheeler v. Gardner, 2006 ND 24, 10, 708 N.W.2d 908. When interpreting a statute, this Court seeks to ascertain the intent of the Legislature by giving the statute's language "its plain, ordinary, and commonly understood meaning." Id. A statute's language must be interpreted in context, and this Court attempts to give "meaning and effect to every word, phrase, and sentence." Id. at 11 (citing N.D.C.C. 1-02-03 and 1-02-38(2)). Further, "[s]tatutes must be construed to give effect to all of their provisions, so that no part of the statute is rendered inoperative or superfluous." Id. (citing N.D.C.C. 1-02-38(2) and (4)). If a statute's language is clear and unambiguous, such language "is not to be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing [the statute's] spirit." N.D.C.C. 1-02-05. "A statute is ambiguous when it is subject to different, but rational meanings." Hilton v. N.D. Educ. Ass'n, 2002 ND 209, 10, 655 N.W.2d 60. When a statute is ambiguous, "a court may resort to extrinsic aids, including legislative history, to interpret the statute." Id. Finally, this Court presumes "[a] just and reasonable result is intended." N.D.C.C. 1-02-38(3).

III

[ΒΆ5] Sisters of Mary argues it successfully contested the accuracy of Northern's construction lien under N.D.C.C. 35-27-24.1 because the jury awarded Northern approximately $17,000 less than it claimed under the lien. Therefore, Sisters of Mary asserts it is ...


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