Oil & Gas Transfer L.L.C. Plaintiff - Appellee
John Karr Defendant-Appellant
Submitted: March 13, 2019
from United States District Court for the District of North
Dakota - Bismarck
GRUENDER, BENTON, and GRASZ, Circuit Judges.
GRUENDER, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
& Gas Transfer L.L.C. ("OGT") appeals the
district court's denial of its motion for attorney's
fees. We affirm.
an oil field construction company that hired John Karr to
expand and manage its business in North Dakota. When Karr
left OGT in April 2015, he claimed that OGT owed him $1, 304,
026.42. OGT disputed this claim, and Karr filed a pipeline
construction lien statement under North Dakota Century Code
section 35-24-04, purporting to establish a lien on a
pipeline construction project that he had managed while
working for OGT. OGT does not own that pipeline, and the
owner is not a party to this action.
made no attempt to foreclose his putative lien for nearly a
year before OGT brought this action to quiet the pipeline
title in January 2016. The district court granted summary
judgment in favor of OGT on the question of whether Karr was
eligible to claim a lien under section 35-24-04. We affirm
that decision in a separate opinion. The district court also
determined that, despite prevailing in its quiet title
action, OGT was not entitled to attorney's fees under
North Dakota Century Code section 35-24-19. We address that
decision here, considering de novo the legal
question of whether section 35-24-19 provides for an award of
attorney's fees to the prevailing party in a quiet title
action. See Boyd v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., 879 F.3d
314, 324 (8th Cir. 2018). To answer this question, we apply
North Dakota's rules of statutory construction.
Behlmann v. Century Sur. Co., 794 F.3d 960, 963 (8th
North Dakota law, "[t]he primary purpose of statutory
interpretation is to determine legislative intent."
Bolinske v. Jaeger, 2008 ND 180, ¶6, 756 N.W.2d
336, 339 (per curiam). "[T]he Legislature's intent
must be sought initially from the statutory language."
Olson v. Job Serv. N. Dakota, 2013 ND 24, ¶5,
827 N.W.2d 36, 40. "Words used in any statute are to be
understood in their ordinary sense, unless a contrary
intention plainly appears . . . ." N.D. Cent. Code
§ 1-02-02. And "[s]tatutes are construed as a whole
and are harmonized to give meaning to related
provisions." Rasnic v. Conoco Phillips Co.,
2014 ND 181, ¶14, 854 N.W.2d 659, 662 (citing N.D. Cent.
Code § 1-02-07). We must also presume that the
legislature did not intend an "unreasonable result or
unjust consequence." Great W. Bank v. Willmar
Poultry Co., 2010 ND 50, ¶7, 780 N.W.2d 437, 440.
Only if a statute's language is ambiguous may we
"resort to extrinsic aids to determine the intention of
the legislation, including the object sought to be attained,
the circumstances under which the legislation was enacted,
and the legislative history." Rasnic, 2014 N.D.
181, ¶14, 854 N.W.2d 659 (citing N.D. Cent. Code §
1-02-39). "A statute is ambiguous if it is susceptible
to different, rational meanings." Id.
Dakota Century Code section 35-24-19 states that "[i]n
any action brought to enforce a lien prescribed by this
chapter, the party for whom judgment is rendered is entitled
to recover a reasonable attorney's fee, to be fixed by
the court, which must be taxed as costs in the action."
Karr argues, and the district court agreed, that section
35-24-19 does not apply here because OGT's quiet title
action did not seek to "enforce a lien." Rather,
OGT's action challenged the enforceability of a
lien. OGT disputes this reasoning on appeal, claiming that
application of the plain and ordinary meanings of the word
"enforce" and the phrase "any action"
makes section 35-24-19 broad enough to encompass its quiet
relies on Black's Law Dictionary's definition of
"enforce" as "[t]o give force or effect to (a
law, etc.); to compel obedience to." Black's Law
Dictionary (10th ed. 2014). OGT applies this definition to
conclude that its quiet title action falls within section
35-24-19 because it asked the district court to force or
compel the lien to comply with the law. But OGT's
conclusion does not follow from the proposed definition. The
definition suggests that to enforce a lien means to give
force to a lien, not to force that lien to comply
with the law. Thus, the definition of "enforce"
does not establish that section 35-24-19 provides for
attorney's fees in quiet title actions challenging the
enforceability of a lien. Nor does the phrase "any
action" establish that section 35-24-19 provides for
attorney's fees because the scope of that phrase is
limited to actions "brought to enforce a lien."
section 35-24-19 alongside other provisions of North
Dakota's lien statutes confirms that it was not meant to
allow the recovery of attorney's fees in quiet title
actions. North Dakota Century Code section 35-27-24.1, for
example, provides for an award of attorney's fees to
owners of construction projects who succeed in actions-like
quiet title actions-that "contest the validity or
accuracy of a construction lien by any action in district
court." By contrast, section 35-24-19 is not so broad.
It applies only to actions brought to "enforce a
lien," and construing it to apply to actions that
"contest the validity or accuracy" of a lien would
contradict our duty to harmonize related statutory
provisions. See Rasnic, 2014 ND 181, ¶14, 854
N.W.2d 659. Likewise, the provision immediately preceding
section 35-24-19 states that "[i]n all cases when
judgment may be rendered in favor of any person to
enforce a lien under the provisions of this chapter, the
. . . pipeline . . . must be ordered to be sold." N.D.
Cent. Code § 35-24-18 (emphasis added). Applying this
provision, if OGT's quiet title action was "to
enforce a lien" and Karr prevailed, then the district
court would be required to order the pipeline sold
even though the owner of the pipeline is not a party to the
lawsuit. This is an absurd result that the legislature could
not have intended. See Pub. Serv. Comm'n v. Wimbledon
Grain Co., 2003 ND 104, ¶21, 663 N.W.2d 186, 193
("We presume the Legislature did not intend an absurd or
ludicrous result or unjust consequences.").
these reasons, section 35-24-19 is not ambiguous, and we need
not consider OGT's public policy arguments. See
Rasnic, 2014 ND 181, ¶14, 854 N.W.2d 659 (citing
N.D. Cent. Code §§ 1-02-05 and 1-02-39).
Accordingly, we affirm the district court's denial of
OGT's motion for attorney's fees.