This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. ' 480A.08, subd. 3 (1994).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Independent School District No. 316,
Filed June 11, 1996
Itasca County District Court
File No. C794848
Daniel J. Maertens, Dean R. Karau, Frederickson & Byron, P.A., 1100 International Centre, 900 Second Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for Appellant)
Leif A. Nelson, Lano, Nelson, O'Toole & Bengtson, Ltd., 115 N.E. Fifth Street, P.O. Box 20, Grand Rapids, MN 55744 (for Respondent)
Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge, Toussaint, Chief Judge, and Crippen, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
On appeal from denial of his motion for a new trial, Ronald Maertens argues that the district court erred by finding that his contract with respondent was ambiguous. We reverse.
Appellant Ronald Maertens served as assistant superintendent of respondent Independent School District No. 316, Coleraine (school district), for three years and as superintendent for eighteen years, commencing in 1972. After a teachers' strike in 1984, many of the school district's teachers developed animosity toward Maertens and pressured the school board to terminate him. In response, over a period of years the school board variously attempted to reduce or eliminate Maertens's position, demanded that Maertens resign, considered buying out the remainder of Maertens's contract, negotiated with Maertens regarding terms under which he would leave voluntarily, retained an attorney to research grounds on which the school board could terminate Maertens, and considered abolishing Maertens's position and placing him on an unrequested leave of absence. None of these actions resulted in Maertens's departure.
Early in 1993, Maertens applied for a superintendent position in another school district. Maertens told the interviewing school board that his availability depended on obtaining release from his current employer. Maertens also told the interviewing school board that he would not need health benefits because his current employer would continue to provide those benefits.
After conditionally accepting the new position, Maertens submitted a letter to the school board offering to retire from his current position "per the terms of [his] existing contract." His existing contract stated that
[a] superintendent who retires on or after July 1, 1966, and who has reached a retirement age acceptable to the Teachers Retirement Association or Federal Social Security * * * shall continue to be insured under the then-existing hospital and medical insurance program covering employees of the school district * * *.
Maertens told the board that he had accepted a position with another district and that he believed his contract called for the school district to continue to provide his health insurance benefits. Maertens told the board that he was submitting his letter of retirement on the condition that he receive the benefits set forth in his contract.
At a board meeting, the school board discussed the difference between retirement and resignation, as well as the possible legal consequences of accepting Maertens's offer to retire. Without imposing any conditions or qualifications, the board passed a motion approving Maertens's retirement. At its next meeting, the school board approved the minutes of the previous meeting without changing the language of the resolution. Two months later, however, the board approved a resolution accepting Maertens's resignation, concluding that Maertens had not retired and was therefore no longer eligible for health insurance benefits.
Maertens sued the school district. The district court concluded that the term "retire" in the contract was ambiguous because the contract did not specify whether health insurance coverage would continue on retirement from the school district or only on retirement from the work force. As a result, the district court held that the contract did not require the school district to continue paying Maertens's health insurance benefits. The district court denied Maertens's motion for a new trial, and this appeal followed.
D E C I S I O N
A district court has broad discretion to grant a motion for a new trial, and a reviewing court must not disturb that decision absent a clear abuse of discretion. Halla Nursery v. Baumann-Furie & Co., 454 N.W.2d 905, 910 (Minn. 1990). Where the trial court bases its order on a question of law, however, a reviewing court applies a de novo standard of review. Id. Whether a contract provision is ambiguous is a legal determination. Blattner v. Forster, 322 N.W.2d 319, 321 (Minn. 1982). We, therefore, review de novo the district court's conclusion that the term "retire" is ambiguous.
A court's primary role in interpreting contracts is to "ascertain and give effect to the intention of the parties." Metropolitan Sports Facilities Comm'n v. General Mills, 470 N.W.2d 118, 122-23 (Minn. 1991). In ascertaining the parties' intent, courts must consider the contract provisions within the context of the language and the purpose of the contract as a whole. Republic Nat'l Life Ins. Co. v. Lorraine Realty, 279 N.W.2d 349, 354 (Minn. 1979). In doing so, courts must give language in a contract its plain and ordinary meaning. Current Technology Concepts, Inc. v. Irie Enters., Inc., 530 N.W.2d 539, 543 (Minn. 1995). If the contract provision is susceptible to more than one interpretation, the provision is ambiguous. Blattner, 322 N.W.2d at 321. Here, the term "retire" is part of the contract that controls the terms and conditions of Maertens's employment relationship with the school district. Within this context, the term is not susceptible to more than one interpretation. We hold that the contract provision, by its plain language, requires the school district to continue to pay health insurance benefits to a superintendent of retirement age who retires from the school district, regardless of whether the superintendent retires from the work force altogether.
Even if we concluded that the term "retirement" is ambiguous, which we do not, the parties' actions show that under the contract they intended the district to provide continued health insurance coverage if Maertens left the school district, rather than if he retired from the work force. The school board approved Maertens's retirement after Maertens informed the school board that he had accepted another position and was retiring from the school district on the condition that the school district continue to pay his health insurance benefits "per the terms of [his] existing contract." The board members discussed the difference between retirement and resignation, as well as the legal consequences of accepting Maertens's retirement per the terms of the existing contract. After this discussion, the board passed the motion approving Maertens's retirement without conditions or qualifications. The school district's actions show that it intended the contract to require continued health insurance benefits for Maertens after his retirement from the district.