R. Thomas Czarnik
Fred F. Holroyd
Princeton, West Virginia Holroyd & Yost
Attorney for Appellants Charleston, West Virginia
Phillip P. Ball
Smith & Lilly
Princeton, West Virginia
Attorneys for the Appellee
The Opinion of the Court was delivered PER CURIAM.
CHIEF JUSTICE MCGRAW and JUSTICE STARCHER concur in part; and dissent in part; and reserve the right to file concurring and dissenting opinions.
1. Appellate review of a circuit court's order granting a motion to
dismiss a complaint is de novo. Syllabus point 2, State ex rel. McGraw v. Scott Runyan
Pontiac-Buick, Inc., 194 W. Va. 770, 461 S.E.2d 516 (1995).
2. Terms of employment concerning the payment of unused fringe
benefits to employees must be express and specific so that employees understand the
amount of unused fringe benefit pay, if any, owed to them upon separation from
employment. Accordingly, this Court will construe any ambiguity in the terms of
employment in favor of employees. Syllabus point 6, Meadows v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.,
207 W. Va. 203, 530 S.E.2d 676 (1999).
Appellants John Howell, Sr., John Howell, Jr., Allen Radford, Marshall Lytton, and Jeffrey S. Hawks (hereinafter collectively referred to as (the Officers) appellants/plaintiffs below, seek reversal from an order of the Circuit Court of Mercer County dismissing their complaints against the City of Princeton (hereinafter referred to as (the City) appellee/defendant below. The Officers allege violations of the West Virginia Wage Payment and Collection Act, W. Va. Code § 21-5-1 et seq. After reviewing the record and listening to the parties' oral arguments, we reverse the circuit court's dismissal order and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
A. Complaint by John Howell, Sr., John Howell, Jr., Allen Radford. The
Howells and Mr. Radford were all former employees of the City. Mr. Howell, Sr. and
Mr. Radford had been employed as firemen. Mr. Howell, Jr. was employed as a
policeman. According to the complaint, Mr. Howell, Sr. terminated his employment on
April 2, 1997; Mr. Radford's employment ended June 28, 1997; and Mr. Howell, Jr.
terminated his employment on July 28, 1998.
On February 17, 1999, the Howells and Mr. Radford filed a complaint
against the City seeking accumulated sick pay fringe benefits, plus a statutory penalty.
The amount sought by Mr. Howell, Sr. was $16,769.76. Mr. Radford sought payment
of $7,349.76; Mr. Howell, Jr. sought payment of $4,358.12.
B. Complaint by Marshall Lytton. Mr. Lytton was employed by the City
as a fireman. Mr. Lytton ended his employment on January 22, 1996. On February 5,
1999, Mr. Lytton filed a complaint against the City also seeking accumulated sick pay
fringe benefits and a statutory penalty. Mr. Lytton sought payment in the amount of
C. Complaint by Jeffrey S. Hawks. Mr. Hawks was employed by the City
as a director of Parks and Recreations. Mr. Hawks was terminated by the City on August
24, 1999. On April 12, 2000, Mr. Hawks filed a complaint against the City seeking
payment for personal leave, sick leave and severance benefits. Mr. Hawks sought
payment of these fringe benefits, plus a statutory penalty, in the amount of $4,815.30.
D. Consolidation and disposition. The trial court consolidated the
complaints and by order entered August 25, 2000, the trial court dismissed the complaints
pursuant to the City's motion to dismiss.See footnote 1
From this order the Officers now appeal.
We have held that [a]ppellate review of a circuit court's order granting a motion to dismiss a complaint is de novo. Syl. pt. 2, State ex rel. McGraw v. Scott Runyan Pontiac-Buick, Inc., 194 W. Va. 770, 461 S.E.2d 516 (1995). See also Shaffer v. Charleston Area Med. Ctr., Inc., 199 W. Va. 428, 433, 485 S.E.2d 12, 17 (1997) (Where matters heard on a 12(b)(6) motion do not extend outside the pleading, our standard of review from an order dismissing a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) is de novo[.] (citation omitted)). Moreover, [a]n appellate court is not limited to the legal grounds relied upon by the circuit court, but it may affirm or reverse a decision on any independently sufficient ground that has adequate support. Murphy, 196 W. Va. at 36- 37, 468 S.E.2d at 168-69. We have also explained that [t]he trial court, in appraising the sufficiency of a complaint on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, should not dismiss the complaint unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief. Syl. pt. 3, Chapman v. Kane Transfer Company, 160 W. Va. 530, 236 S.E.2d 207 (1977). The policy of the rule is thus to decide cases upon their merits, and if the complaint states a claim upon which relief can be granted under any legal theory, a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) must be denied. John W. Lodge Distributing Co., Inc. v. Texaco, Inc., 161 W. Va. 603, 605, 245 S.E.2d 157, 158-59 (1978).
B. Payment of Fringe Benefits. The Officers alleged in their complaints
that the City violated the Act by failing to pay them wages, in the form of accumulated
sick leave fringe benefits, after their employment with the City ended.See footnote 2
Under W. Va.
Code § 21-5-1(c) of the Act, wages is defined to include then accrued fringe benefits
capable of calculation and payable directly to an employee[.] Under W. Va. Code §
21-5-1(l) of the Act, fringe benefits is defined to include regular vacation, graduated
vacation, floating vacation, holidays, sick leave, personal leave, production incentive
bonuses, sickness and accident benefits and benefits relating to medical and pension
coverage. (Emphasis added.) Finally, under W. Va. Code §§ 21-5-4(b) and (c) of the
Act, the following is stated:
(b) Whenever a person, firm or corporation discharges an employee, such person, firm or corporation shall pay the employee's wages in full within seventy-two hours.
(c) Whenever an employee quits or resigns, the person, firm or corporation shall pay the employee's wages no later than the next regular payday, either through the regular pay channels or by mail if requested by the employee, except that if the employee gives at least one pay period's notice of intention to quit the person, firm or corporation shall pay all wages earned by the employee at the time of quitting.
A first impression of the above statutory provisions may seem to indicate that in all instances employers are obligated to pay unused fringe benefits to employees upon their termination. This proposition is not legally correct. Payment of unused fringe benefits was addressed by this Court in Meadows v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 207 W. Va. 203, 530 S.E.2d 676 (1999). Meadows held that the Act did not make payment of fringe benefits mandatory, and that the terms and conditions of fringe benefits were controlled by the agreement between the employer and employee. In Syllabus point 5 of Meadows we ruled that the terms of employment may . . . provide that unused fringe benefits will not be paid to employees upon separation from employment. It was further stated in Syllabus point 6 of Meadows that:
Terms of employment concerning the payment of
unused fringe benefits to employees must be express and
specific so that employees understand the amount of unused
fringe benefit pay, if any, owed to them upon separation from
employment. Accordingly, this Court will construe any
ambiguity in the terms of employment in favor of employees.
Thus, under Meadows, there must be an express understanding between employers and
employees regarding the payment or nonpayment of unused fringe benefits in order for the
Officers to prevail in this case. That same analysis was enunciated in Ingram. In fact, in
Ingram, the City argued and proved successfully that it has a longstanding unwritten policy
of never paying employees unused fringe benefits, including sick leave. More importantly,
Mr. Ingram admitted on cross-examination that he was fully aware that the City had an
unwritten policy of not paying unused sick leave to separated officers. Under Meadows and
Ingram this unwritten policy would be sufficient to defeat the claim asserted by the
Officers, if the record clearly illustrated that the Officers were aware of the policy.See footnote 3
Insofar as the Officers' claims were disposed of at the pleading stage, there is nothing in
the record to show that the Officers were aware of the policy. Without such an affirmative
showing, the complaints filed by the Officers stated a cause of action upon which relief
may be granted. Therefore, it was error for the trial court to dismiss the complaints at the
pleading stage. Instead, like Ingram, facts must be developed to determine whether or not
the City had an unwritten policy of never paying unused sick leave and, if so, whether or
not each officer knew that the City had an unwritten policy of never paying unused sick
leave to separated officers.