Robert J. Schiavoni
Rodney L. Bean
Hammer, Ferretti & Schiavoni Vanessa L. Goddard
Martinsburg, West Virginia Steptoe & Johnson
and Morgantown, West Virginia
Garry G. Geffert Attorneys for the Appellee
Martinsburg, West Virginia
Attorneys for the Appellant
The Opinion of the Court was delivered PER CURIAM.
JUSTICE McGRAW dissents and reserves the right to file a dissenting opinion.
1. A circuit court's entry of summary judgment is reviewed de novo. Syl.
Pt. 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994).
2. 'The West Virginia Wage Payment and Collection Act is remedial
legislation designed to protect working people and assist them in the collection of
compensation wrongly withheld. Syllabus, Mullins v. Venable, 171 W.Va. 92, 297 S.E.2d
866 (1982).' Syl. Pt. 3, Jones v. Tri-County Growers, Inc., 179 W.Va. 218, 366 S.E.2d 726
(1988). Syl. Pt. 3, Lipscomb v. Tucker County Com'n, 206 W.Va. 627, 527 S.E.2d 171
3. 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. Syl. Pt. 6, Meadows v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 207 W.Va. 203, 530 S.E.2d 676
This appeal consists of two cases involving actions seeking to collect unpaid earned and accrued fringe benefits as wages by invoking the provisions of West Virginia Code §§ 21-5-1 through 18, the West Virginia Wage Payment and Collection Act. The cases were consolidated for decision because they present identical challenges (See footnote 1) to the grant of summary judgment by the Circuit Court of Jefferson County in orders dated July 12, 2002. Plaintiffs below and appellants herein, Patricia McDowell and Sydney Walsh (hereinafter collectively referred to as Appellants), were former employees of the defendant below/appellee herein, Jefferson Memorial Hospital (hereinafter referred to as the Hospital), who were not paid at the time they separated from employment with the Hospital for the sick leave they had accrued during the course of their employment. Appellants contend that they, rather than the Hospital, should have been awarded summary judgment because the personnel policies in effect at the time of their discharge from employment were ambiguous with regard to whether accrued sick leave benefits would be a paid severance benefit and such ambiguity is required by law to be resolved in favor of the employee. After careful and studied review of the issues raised, the documents filed and the arguments presented, we affirm the orders of the circuit court.
At all times relevant to this appeal, the Hospital had a written personnel policy
manual which, among other things, delineated the leave policy of the Hospital. While the
manual was revised from time to time, the change having significance to this appeal is that
made to the leave policy effective June 11, 1999. Before that date, the leave benefits
outlined in the manual as available to employees included holiday, vacation, personal days
and sick leave. While accrual of sick leave was unlimited, the former manual stated that
[u]nused sick leave will not be paid as a severance benefit. The June 11, 1999, manual
established a single leave benefit called annual paid leave (hereinafter referred to as APL)
which by its terms replaced the provisions for accrual of the former types of leave, including
(See footnote 2)
Nevertheless, the Hospital's new policy allowed use of the sick leave employees
had accrued under the old policy in certain situations.
After the hospital refused Appellants' requests for payment of sick leave which
had accrued under the former policy, Appellants each filed suit in the circuit court.
(See footnote 3)
discovery was completed, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. By orders
dated July 12, 2002, the lower court granted the Hospital's motion for summary judgment
and entered a final judgment in favor of the Hospital in both cases.
(See footnote 4)
The July 12 orders form
the basis of this consolidated appeal.
(See footnote 5)
The heart of Appellants' argument is that the terms of employment set forth
in the Hospital's June 11, 1999, personnel policy manual created uncertainty about whether
sick leave they had accrued under the previous personnel policy of the hospital was a benefit
which was subject to payment as compensation under the Act. Appellants claim that the
cause of the ambiguity was the deletion of the express provision in the former policy stating
that unused sick leave would not be paid as a severance benefit. In furtherance of their
argument, Appellants rely upon the provisions of syllabus point six of Meadows, which
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.
207 W.Va. at 206, 530 S.E.2d at 679. (See footnote 6) Appellants contend that because the terms of employment must be express and specific, in order to avoid ambiguity the Hospital had to include the statement excluding payment of unused sick leave as a severance benefit in its superseding policy. Appellants further contend that the ambiguity thus created was not resolved by the lower court's finding that the Hospital eliminated its entire sick leave policy because the new policy continued to refer to the accrued but unused sick leave. In response, the Hospital maintains that the lower court correctly ruled that the new policy was not ambiguous in this regard because there was no need to account for leave that no longer could be earned and accrued after the effective date of the new personnel policies.
Essential to our review of this matter is a close examination of both the
June 11, 1999, personnel policy and the circuit court's specific ruling. The relevant portion
of the personnel policy at issue states:
Employees can carry a maximum of 240 hours forward to the next calendar year. APL balances in excess of these maximum amounts will not be allowed to carry over unless the needs of the hospital, in the hospital's determination, prevent the employee from taking time off. In such instances, the employee may be paid in lieu of receiving time off for all, or a portion of, the balance in excess of the maximum amount. Otherwise, all APL in excess of 240 hours will be paid to the employee at the end of the calendar year. Accumulated sick leave available to the employee prior to the effective date of this policy shall continue to be available to the employee after the employee has drawn down to an APL balance of 40 hours. This accumulated sick leave can only be used for employee illness.
In consideration of these policy provisions, the lower court determined that there was no ambiguity with regard to payment of the sick leave accrued under the former policy. The following excerpt from the July 12, 2002, orders provides the lower court's rationale for making this determination:
The Court rejects Plaintiff's argument that the new PPM (See footnote 7) was ambiguous with respect to treatment of pre-June 11, 1999 accumulated sick leave under the new PPM. The entire policy was changed; further accrual of sick leave was abolished; the sick leave banks were frozen and accounted for separately. It was made clear in the new PPM that the new concept, APL[,] was a payable benefit. By stating: This accumulated sick leave can only be used for employee illness[,] the new PPM indicated clearly that the old sick leave banks were usable only in-kind and under restrictive conditions. When considered in conjunction with Hospital officials' contemporaneous explanations of the policy (including treatment of old sick leave banks), the Court agrees with the Hospital that it would have been superfl[u]ous to retain the statement, made in the old PPM, that sick leave was not payable as a severance benefit in the new PPM.
We agree with conclusion of the lower court and appreciate the detailed reasoning provided by the court in its orders. We additionally observe that the language of the new policy makes it quite clear that the sick leave accumulated under the former policy is not the same as APL and actually operates somewhat in tandem with APL. Indeed, the new policy by its terms makes clear that sick leave accumulated under the former policy is not added to the new system of leave. Furthermore, the new policy expressly and specifically provides that the sick leave accumulated under the former policy can only be used for employee illness. As defined by Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 812 (10thed. 1995), when used as an adverb the word only means a single fact or instance and nothing more or different. We concur with the circuit court's finding that the new policy language is not ambiguous or misleading as to whether sick leave accumulated under the former policy would be paid to departing employees and with the lower court's ultimate conclusion that compensation was not wrongly withheld. Finding no error in its application of the law in these cases, we affirm the decision of the lower court.
For the reasons set forth, we affirm the July 12, 2002, orders of the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, granting summary judgment to Jefferson Memorial Hospital.