Interpreting the Language of an Ambiguous Statute

Several legal texts are ordered across several shelves.

To successfully review, argue and win cases, it’s simply not enough to be able to memorize and recite the law. An intelligent, experienced attorney will also look for opportunities to interpret the meaning of a statute as it pertains to their client’s case. When interpreting a statute, a court “must ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature. To ascertain and effectuate the legislature’s intent, courts must first look to see whether the statute’s language, on its face, is clear or ambiguous. A statute is only ambiguous when it is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation.” See State v. McCoy, 682 N.W.2d 153, 158–59 (Minn. 2004). This nuance becomes extremely important in workers’ compensation cases involving Minnesota Statutes section 353E.001, which defines Duty Disability as:
a condition that is expected to prevent a member, for a period of not less than 12 months, from performing the normal duties of a local government correctional service employee as defined under section 353E.02 and that is the direct result of an injury incurred during, or a disease arising out of, the performance of normal duties or the actual performance of less frequent duties, either of which are specific to protecting the property and personal safety of others and that present inherent dangers that are specific to the positions covered by the local government correctional service retirement plan.

Minn. Stat. § 353E.001 (2012) (emphasis added). In this example, the word “specific” is ambiguous because it is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation.

The first interpretation is that “specific” means “unique” to the position of correctional officer. The second interpretation is that “specific” means “common” to the position of a correctional officer. The key to a finding of an ambiguity by a court is that the two conflicting interpretations must be reasonable. It is not enough that there are two possible interpretations—rather, each interpretation must not just be possible; the interpretation must also be a reasonable interpretation of the language. In the example used above, a court would likely find that both interpretations of “specific” are reasonable based on the plain language of the statute; however, the court’s interpretation of the legislative intent would be critical here. These interpretations would have very different effects on a correctional officer’s eligibility for Duty Disability benefits so it’s important to consult a workers’ comp lawyer with experience trying these types of cases. It would be much more difficult to prove that a duty was “unique” to the position of correctional officer than it would be to prove that a duty was “common” to the position of correctional officer.

Once a court decides that the language of the statute is subject to more than one meaning, and is thus ambiguous, it must determine which reasonable interpretation the legislature intended. The court must ascertain the intent of the legislature by considering the following factors:

(1) the occasion and necessity for the law; (2) the circumstances under which it was enacted; (3) the mischief to be remedied; (4) the object to be obtained; (5) the former law, if any, including other laws upon the same or similar subjects; (6) the consequences of a particular interpretation; (7) the contemporaneous legislative history; and (8) legislative and administrative interpretation of the statute.

Minn. Stat. § 645.16 (2013). Each party will support its interpretation with support from the legislative history or the policy reasons underlying the law and present these to the court in the form of a brief. From these materials, the court will determine what the legislature intended and issue a ruling accordingly. Following such a ruling, the legislature has the ability to clarify its intent by modifying the language of the statute.

If you’ve been injured in an accident or on the job, the attorneys at Meuser Law Office, P.A. can help you navigate through a complex system that may involve nuanced interpretations of the law, as workers’ compensation and PERA. For a free, no-obligation workers’ compensation case consultation, call the attorneys at Meuser Law Office, P.A., in Minnesota at 877-746-5680 or click here to send us an email.