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Denver Classroom Teachers Association v. School District No. 1 in the County of Denver

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Seventh Division

January 12, 2017

Denver Classroom Teachers Association, Plaintiff-Appellee and Cross-Appellant,
v.
School District No. 1 in the County of Denver and State of Colorado; and Board of Education of School District No. 1 in the County of Denver and State of Colorado, Defendants-Appellants and Cross-Appellees.

         City and County of Denver District Court No. 13CV34640 Honorable Catherine A. Lemon, Judge

         JUDGMENT AFFIRMED

          Sharyn E. Dreyer, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee and Cross-Appellant.

          Semple, Farrington & Everall, P.C., M. Brent Case, Susanne S. Kim, Denver, Colorado, for Defendants-Appellants and Cross-Appellees.

          OPINION

          BOORAS JUDGE.

         ¶ 1 The defendants/appellants/cross-appellees in this case are School District No. 1 and the Board of Education of School District No. 1 in the County of Denver and State of Colorado (collectively, the District). The plaintiff/appellee/cross-appellant is the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA).

         ¶ 2 The District appeals a jury verdict finding it liable for breaching several collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and a determination of damages reflected in the final judgment. DCTA cross-appeals the special interrogatories finding that the District did not breach certain CBAs as they pertained to a particular group of teachers. We affirm.

         I. Background

         ¶ 3 The District and DCTA entered into several CBAs and extensions from 2005 to 2015: the 2005-08 CBA, the 2008-11 CBA, the 2011-12 Extension, and the 2012-15 Extension. The extensions adopted most of the CBA provisions with only a few modifications not pertinent to this action.

         ¶ 4 From the mid-1990s until the 2006-07 school year, the District compensated teachers for attending English Language Acquisition (ELA) training. ELA is a program to train teachers to work more effectively with students who have limited English language proficiency. A federal consent order requires the District to have teachers who are trained to teach such students. After the 2006-07 school year, the District stopped paying teachers for attending the training, although it offered teachers who had already started the training that year a one-time stipend of $500.

         ¶ 5 DCTA filed a grievance against the District alleging violations of the 2005-08 CBA. The grievance resulted in nonbinding arbitration. The arbitrator issued a recommendation in favor of DCTA, but the school board elected not to adopt the recommendation.

         ¶ 6 DCTA subsequently filed suit for breach of the 2005-08 and 2008-11 CBAs and the extensions, and the trial court bifurcated the liability and damages portions of the trial. A jury returned verdicts in favor of DCTA for breach of contract, but it held the District not liable in special interrogatories regarding breach for teachers in the Professional Compensation (ProComp) system.

         II. Analysis

         ¶ 7 The District raises three contentions. First, it contends that the CBAs unambiguously do not require extra compensation for ELA training. Next, it asserts that additional evidence pertaining to the CBAs and extensions from 2008 forward shows that the District was not required to compensate teachers for ELA training. Finally, the District contends the trial court erred in failing to limit damages because (1) some of DCTA's damages accrued beyond the statute of limitations and (2) DCTA did not exhaust its administrative remedies for the CBAs and extensions subsequent to 2008.

         ¶ 8 DCTA cross-appeals, alleging the trial court erred in giving the jury special interrogatories asking it to determine whether teachers in the ProComp system were exempted from the entitlement to extra pay for ELA training.

         ¶ 9 We address each contention in turn.

         III. Legal Principles of Contract Interpretation

         ¶ 10 Most of the issues raised by the parties involve interpretation of the CBAs. The interpretation of a contract is a question of law that we review de novo. Fed. Deposit Ins. Corp. v. Fisher, 2013 CO 5, ¶ 9. In determining whether a contractual provision is ambiguous, we examine the language of the contract and construe it in harmony with the plain and generally accepted meaning of the words used. Dorman v. Petrol Aspen, Inc., 914 P.2d 909, 912 (Colo. 1996).

         ¶ 11 A provision is ambiguous "if it is fairly susceptible to more than one interpretation." Id. (quoting Fibreglas Fabricators, Inc. v. Kylberg, 799 P.2d 371, 374 (Colo. 1990)). We may consider extraneous evidence to determine whether a contract is ambiguous. Cheyenne Mountain Sch. Dist. No. 12 v. Thompson, 861 P.2d 711, 715 (Colo. 1993).

         ¶ 12 If a contract is unambiguous, it cannot be changed by extrinsic evidence. Dorman, 914 P.2d at 911. If it is ambiguous, it must be construed in accordance with the intent of the parties, and we may consider extraneous evidence to determine such intent. Id. at 911-12. Once a contract is determined to be ambiguous, its interpretation becomes an issue of fact. Id.

         IV. The CBAs Are Ambiguous Regarding Compensation for ELA Training

         ¶ 13 The District contends that the CBAs and extensions are unambiguous in their construction and that they do not require the district to pay teachers for ELA training. We do not agree.

         ¶ 14 The relevant articles of the 2005-08 and 2008-11 CBAs are:

2-7: The parties recognize that the Board has the responsibility and authority to establish policies and regulations for the management of all the operations and activities of the District. All lawful rights and authority of the Board ...

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