“Full Time”—It’s Not Clear Enough

In its recent opinion in In re C.P.Y. (copy here), the Texas Court of Appeals had occasion to consider the phrase “full-time basis,” and it concluded that it’s ambiguous.

Youst (the husband) was required to pay Wells (the wife) alimony until, among other events, she returned to work “on a full-time basis.” Wells got work as a contract attorney, so Youst sought an order declaring that he no longer had to pay alimony. The trial court found in favor of Youst.

Here’s how the appellate court summarized the arguments (citations omitted):

There appears to be no common definition of “full time,” and the divorce decree is silent as to what the parties intended. Under Youst’s interpretation, Wells’s first week of billing forty hours implicated termination of the alimony provision. Wells argues that her return to work on a full-time basis has meaning only if the word “basis” is given meaning beyond a single forty-hour week. Under the labor code definition urged by Youst and under other Texas statutes, the term “full time” is used in conjunction with “employers” and “employees” and may include benefits such as vacation. The decree contains no other mention of employment on a “full time basis.” The only other reference to “employment” is a requirement that Youst furnish health and dental insurance for the parties’ child “through [his] employment.” “Through employment” is defined to mean “through the party’s employment or membership in a union, trade association, or other organization.” This definition provides no further assistance in our attempt to harmonize all provisions of the decree to determine the parties’ intent as to the disputed language.

In sum, the language in the divorce decree relating to Wells’s return to work on a “full time basis” cannot be given a certain and definite meaning, and we cannot determine the true intentions of Youst and Wells from the expression in the writing itself. We also conclude the language is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation. Accordingly, the contract is ambiguous, and a fact issue exists as to the parties’ intent. The trial court therefore erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Youst, and the case must be remanded for a new trial.

So whatever the context, you should consider being specific as to what “full time” means. But in my persnickety way, I’m not sure that “full time” is ambiguous—it doesn’t offer distinct alternative meanings. Instead, I think it’s unduly general. (This is a nuance I discuss in chapter 6 of MSCD.) But I’ll chew it over some more.

Incidentally, this reminds me of my 2011 post on the phrase “at any time during my employment” (here).

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.