Going Beyond Words in Statutory Interpretation

Tweeting in 160 characters or less has taught us that we can make do with little, if any, punctuation. Learning to saying something with an economy of words so that you can quickly send a text to someone has, again, taught us to limit all but essential punctuation. However, when dealing with statutory interpretation, know that not only have the words been carefully chosen but they have been just as meaningfully punctuated. Keeping that in mind can mean the difference between framing a winning argument and explaining to your clients why their case did not succeed. Such regard for the rules would have saved the lawyers and clients in Guillen v. Pearson, No. 48058-1-II (Wash. Ct. App. Aug. 16, 2016) much time, effort and money.

In Guillen, five laborers working for a framing subcontractor were not paid their wages. They followed the law, filed a construction lien and brought suit to foreclose the lien. The statute provided that a lien could be filed only by a construction agent, defined as “any registered or licensed contractor, registered or licensed subcontractor, architect, engineer, or other person having charge of any improvement to real property who shall be deemed the agent of the owner.” The owner objected to the lien, arguing that, as laborers, the lienholders did not “hav[e] charge of any improvement.” The owner was reading the statute as if the final language in that sentence applied to each of the preceding nouns: contractor, subcontractor, architect, engineer or other person. Referring to the basic rules of grammar, the court rejected their argument.

The “last antecedent rule” provides that a qualifying phrase following a list of terms modifies only the last antecedent term unless there is a comma before the last qualifying phrase. It is only where the comma appears that the qualifying term will modify all the antecedent terms. The laborers’ counsel made just such an argument; but the property owner’s counsel “[did] not address it.” Id. at *8. Applying the rule, the court held that the critical language applied only to the last descriptor, the catch-all unknown “other person”. Therefore, the laborers need not have had “charge” of the improvement.

The next time you find yourself wondering whether the last qualifying phrase applies to all the preceding terms, don’t waste time tracking down legislative history, prior case law or treatises on the subject. Instead remember the antecedent rule and look to see where the last comma appears.

For other information about statutory and contract interpretation, we invite you to review the links below to Legal Issues from Litigation Pathfinder.