What Constitutes Extrinsic Evidence that Changes the Standard of Review?

Well-established, seemingly clear principles like contract interpretation being a matter of law (absent ambiguity requiring extrinsic evidence to resolve), and de novo review of legal questions aren’t always so clear in practice. California National Bank v. Woodbridge Plaza, LLC, case no. G038623 (4th Dist. May 30, 2008, ordered published June 20, 2008) is a case in point.

At issue was the meaning of a lease provision that determined the maximum rent for the extended term. The landlord, who prevailed at the bench trial, contended that the court’s interpretation of the lease was governed by substantial evidence review because there was conflicting opinion testimony on the meaning of the lease provision.

Sound disingenuous to you? Me, too, and the court isn’t buying it, either:

We review a trial court’s construction of a lease de novo as long as there was no conflicting extrinsic evidence admitted to assist in determining the meaning of the language. [Citation.] If a lease provision is ambiguous, parol evidence may be admitted as to the parties’ intentions if the language is reasonably susceptible to a suggested interpretation. [Citation.] If there is conflicting evidence necessitating a determination of credibility, we use the substantial evidence test. [Citation.]

Here, not only was there no conflicting extrinsic evidence, there was no extrinsic evidence at all as to the intent of the parties about paragraph 3. Defendant points to testimony of the parties’ “differing interpretations of the lease.” But an interpretation of the lease is not the same as evidence of intent when negotiating or executing the lease, and there was no evidence of the latter. Thus, we construe the meaning of the lease de novo.

But the court does buy the trial court’s interpretation of the lease, so the landlord wins anyway.

(Yes, this case is old . . . by blogging standards, anyway. I turned up this post in my drafts queue.)