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CONTRACTS AND INTERFERENCE WITH CONTRACTUAL RELATIONS - ALLIED COMPANY OF THE WIREGRASS, INC. V. CITY OF DOTHAN

Allied Company of the Wiregrass, Inc. v. City of Dothan [Ms. 2140190, Aug. 28, 2015], So.3d (Ala. Civ. App. 2015). The Court of Civil Appeals reverses in part the Houston Circuit Court's entry of summary judgment in favor of the City of Dothan and several city employees in an action by a fencing supply company claiming breach of contract by the city and intentional-interference-with-a-contractual-relationship claims against the city's employees. Finding the evidence in conflict as to a material requirement of the contract (whether the fencing material was "powder coated"), the Court of Civil Appeals determined that summary judgment in favor of the city on the contract was improper as that factual dispute required resolution by a jury.

"[O]nce a court determines that an instrument is ambiguous or uncertain in any respect, it becomes a question for the factfinder to determine the true meaning of the contract." Ms. at 11, quoting Ex parte Harris, 837 So.2d 283, 290 (Ala. 2002). The court reiterated the rules of construction a trial court is to follow to ascertain whether such factual issues exist:

"Alfa Life Ins. Corp. v. Johnson, 822 So. 2d 400 (Ala. 2001), provides a thorough explanation of the steps to be employed by the trial court:

"'When a trial court is found with a contract issue, it is important for the trial court to determine as soon as practicable the "threshold issue" whether the contract is ambiguous. If the trial court determines that there is no ambiguity, it must "'determine the force and effect of the terms of the contract as a matter of law.'" ... However, if the trial court finds the contract to be ambiguous, it "must employ established rules of contract construction to resolve the ambiguity." ... If the application of such rules is not sufficient to resolve the ambiguity, factual issues arise:

""If one must go beyond the four corners of the agreement in construing an ambiguous agreement, the surrounding circumstances, including the practical construction put on the language of the agreement by the parties to the agreement, are controlling in resolving the ambiguity."

"'... Where factual issues arise, the resolution of the ambiguity becomes a task for the jury. ...'

"... In short, a court is to evaluate the contract on its face and apply rules of contract construction in an effort to resolve ambiguities before submitting the case to a jury."

Ms. at 11, quoting Vesta Fire Ins. Corp. v. Liberty Nat'l Life Ins. Co., 893 So.2d 395,
403-04 (Ala. Civ. App. 2003) (internal citations omitted, underlined emphasis in original).

The court affirmed the summary judgment in favor of the city's employees, finding, with respect to the tortious-interference-with-contractual-relations claims, that such employees were not strangers to the contract. "A party to a contract cannot, as a matter of law, be liable for tortious interference with the contract." Ms. at 12, quoting BellSouth Mobility, Inc. v. Cellulink, Inc., 814 So.2d 203, 212 (Ala. 2001). Because the city's employees were each involved in determining whether the materials for the fencing project were non-compliant, and were the persons with whom the fence supplier communicated concerning the contract, they were parties-in-interest to the contractual relationship and therefore not strangers to the contract. Ms. at 13-14, citing Waddell & Reed, Inc. v. United Investors Life Ins. Co., 875 So.2d 1143, 1154 (Ala. 2003).

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