Simon v. State Examiners of Electricians

Decision Date25 June 1985
Citation479 N.E.2d 649,395 Mass. 238
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Anne L. Berger, Woburn, for plaintiffs.

Stephen S. Ostrach, Asst. Atty. Gen., for defendant.

Peter J. Gagne, Boston, for Elec. Contractors Ass'n of Greater Boston, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

Paul F. Kelly, Boston, for Excavating and Bldg. Material Chauffeurs and Helpers Local Union No. 379, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.


LYNCH, Justice.

The plaintiffs challenge a rule promulgated by the Board of State Examiners of Electricians (examiners), which effectively requires that only licensed electricians install fire or burglar alarm systems in the Commonwealth. 2 The plaintiffs prevailed in the Superior Court, which held the rule to be invalid, but a divided panel of the Appeals Court reversed. See Simon v. State Examiners of Electricians, 18 Mass.App. 17, 462 N.E.2d 1116 (1984). We granted the plaintiffs' application for further appellate review, 392 Mass. 1101, 465 N.E.2d 261, and we now disagree with the conclusion of the Appeals Court and affirm the judgment for the plaintiffs entered in the Superior Court.

The central question in this dispute is the extent of authority the Legislature intended to grant to the examiners by using the words "for light, heat or power purposes" after "electricity" in G.L. c. 141, § 1. 3 The examiners contend that these words were not meant to limit their authority, but instead to emphasize its comprehensiveness. A majority of the Appeals Court panel agreed, holding that these words are "just different ways of phrasing the common uses of electricity." Simon v. State Examiners of Electricians, supra, 18 Mass.App. at 24, 462 N.E.2d 1116. The plaintiffs argue that the words were meant as a limitation on the examiners' authority, and that their interpretation is supported by the history surrounding the statute and the policies it was designed to further. Alternatively, the plaintiffs contend that they are engaged in the transmission of intelligence by electricity, within the meaning of the exemption created by G.L. c. 141, § 7. 4 The Appeals Court also rejected this argument. Id. at 27-28, 462 N.E.2d 1116. We decide that rule 2.2 exceeds the power granted to the examiners by G.L. c. 141, § 1. 5

The facts underlying this case are stipulated. The plaintiffs are engaged in the business of installing and maintaining fire and burglar alarm systems in commercial and residential properties in the Commonwealth. Most of the contracts entered into by the plaintiffs include long-term agreements for maintenance, and virtually all of the contracts with commercial customers include monitoring the customers' premises by a central station which notifies police or fire officials should a break-in or fire occur.

Essentially, a typical fire alarm system consists of a control box, connected by wire or plug-in transformer to a source of electricity which provides the power to operate the system. This control box is also connected by other wires to the component parts of the system, such as horns, sprinklers, thermostats, smoke detectors, and alarm boxes. The typical burglar alarm system is similar, except that the component parts include such devices as bells, sirens, space detectors, and perimeter detectors. In all modern burglar alarm systems, and about fifty per cent of all fire alarm systems, the control box is connected to a power supply by means of a plug-in transformer, which "steps down" the voltage from normal household current to a lower voltage, similar to that used in telephone wires. The installation of this transformer is performed by a licensed electrician. Similarly, all "hard-wiring," that is, the direct connection of the control box to the live electric wires supplying power, is done by licensed electricians in situations where a plug-in transformer is not used. However, installation of the components of the alarm system is performed by technicians who are not licensed electricians. The wires that these technicians install do not carry electricity until the control box has been connected to a source of power.

A majority of the individuals and corporations engaged in the business of installing alarm systems do not have electricians' licenses. Under rule 2.2, they would be required to obtain licenses or to hire licensed electricians in order to continue in business. The plaintiffs' customers prefer that the plaintiffs' technicians, rather than licensed electricians, install the component parts and wires of the alarm systems. This is the case not only because installation and maintenance is less expensive that way, but also because the technicians are bonded and heavily insured, due to the confidential information they learn during the course of their work and the consequences of a system failure. The examiners do not require that licensed electricians be either bonded or insured. No claims have ever been filed against any of the plaintiffs for damage or personal injury as the result of the installation of an alarm system in Massachusetts, and the examiners have received no complaints about them.

In 1969, the examiners amended rule 2.2 to read in its present form, although enforcement was not attempted until 1974. On March 20, 1975, the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction was granted, and on September 11, 1980, rule 2.2 was declared invalid by a judge in the Superior Court. He found that the plaintiffs "are not engaged in or working at the business of installing wires, conduits, apparatus, fixtures or other appliances for carrying or using electricity for light, heat, or power purposes." The judge also found that the plaintiffs were engaged in the transmission of intelligence by electricity, within the meaning of the exemption contained in G.L. c. 141, § 7. A divided Appeals Court reversed on both grounds. We now decide that rule 2.2 exceeds the powers the Legislature granted to the examiners, and is therefore invalid.

1. The statute. The starting point of our analysis is the language of the statute, "the principal source of insight into Legislative purpose." Commonwealth v. Lightfoot, 391 Mass. 718, 720, 463 N.E.2d 545 (1984). In this case, we must determine whether, by using the phrase "for light, heat or power purposes," the Legislature intended to emphasize the broad reach of the statute or to narrow its scope. We decide that the phrase was intended to be one of limitation.

The words "light, heat or power" are not unique to G.L. c. 141, § 1, and that statute cannot be interpreted properly without an analysis of the context in which the phrase arose. The Legislature originally chose this terminology to describe companies organized for the purpose of generating or selling electricity. In its first definition of an "electric light company," the Legislature used the words "any corporation organized ... for the purpose of making or selling electricity only for light, heat or power." St.1908, c. 529, § 1. 6 Thus, the term had acquired a specialized legislative meaning, relating to the sale of electric power by utilities, by the time St.1915, c. 296, § 1 (now G.L. c. 141, § 1), was enacted. This court has also used that phrase in the same, specialized sense. See Tax Collector of N. Reading v. Reading, 366 Mass. 438, 441, 319 N.E.2d 887 (1974) ("development of electricity for light, heat, and power by a municipality"); Commissioner of Corps. & Taxation v. Springfield, 321 Mass. 31, 37-39, 71 N.E.2d 593 (1947); Barnes v. Peck, 283 Mass. 618, 629, 187 N.E. 176 (1933); Opinion of the Justices, 150 Mass. 592, 598, 24 N.E. 1084 (1890).

Thus, we should consider the utility context from which the phrase arose when interpreting the words of the statute. As Chief Justice Rugg observed: "Statutes are to be interpreted, not alone according to their simple, literal or strict verbal meaning, but in connection with their development, their progression through the legislative body, the history of the times, prior legislation, [and] contemporary customs and conditions.... General expressions may be restrained by relevant circumstances showing a legislative intent that they be narrowed and used in a particular sense." Commonwealth v. Welosky, 276 Mass. 398, 401-402, 177 N.E. 656 (1931), cert. denied, 284 U.S. 684, 52 S.Ct. 201, 76 L.Ed. 578 (1932). Murphy v. Bohn, 377 Mass. 544, 548, 387 N.E.2d 119 (1979). Chipman v. Massachusetts Bay Transp. Auth., 366 Mass. 253, 256, 316 N.E.2d 725 (1974). If a word or phrase has a technical or specialized meaning, this court will adopt that meaning in its construction of the statute. See United States Jaycees v. Massachusetts Comm'n Against Discrimination, 391 Mass. 594, 601, 463 N.E.2d 1151 (1984); School Comm. of Springfield v. Board of Educ., 362 Mass. 417, 439, 287 N.E.2d 438 (1972).

In the utility context, the words "light, heat or power" are used to describe the purposes of companies supplying electricity which is consumed by other products on the premises of the end user. When it used the words "electricity for light, heat or power purposes" in this statute, the Legislature intended that the purposes for which wires carrying electricity are used must be considered before it can be determined whether the examiners have the authority to regulate that use. Thus, it becomes evident that the Legislature intended to grant power to the examiners only over companies in the business of installing wires which carry or use electricity as a product, for light, heat or power purposes, but not over the infinitely broader spectrum of companies in the business of supplying other products that merely use electricity as a source, for light, heat or power. Alarm system installers do not install wires to carry electricity; they install wires to provide alarm systems. A...

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