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Civil Resource Manual

72. Principles Of Contract Interpretation

Contract interpretation begins with the plain language of the contract. Gould, Inc. v. United States, 935 F.2d 1271, 1274 (Fed. Cir. 1991); accord Hol-Gar Mfg. Corp. v. United States, 169 Ct. Cl. 384, 390 (1965). A court should first employ a "plain meaning" analysis in any contract dispute. Aleman Food Services, Inc. v. United States, 994 F.2d 819, 822 (Fed. Cir. 1993).

The intention of the parties to a contract controls its interpretation. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. United States, 444 F.2d 547, 551 (Ct. Cl. 1971). In construing the terms of a contract, however, the parties' intent must be gathered from the instrument as a whole in an attempt to glean the meaning of terms within the contract's intended context. Kenneth Reed Constr. Corp. v. United States, 475 F.2d 583, 586 (Ct. Cl. 1973); Tilley Constructors v. United States, 15 Cl. Ct. 559, 562 (1988). Contract interpretation requires examination first of the four corners of the written instrument to determine the intent of the parties. Hol-Gar Mfg. Corp. v. United States, 351 F.2d 972 (Ct. Cl. 1965). An interpretation will be rejected if it leaves portions of the contract language useless, inexplicable, inoperative, meaningless, or superfluous. Ball State Univ. v. United States, 488 F.2d 1014 (Ct. Cl. 1973); Blake Constr. Co. Inc. v. United States, 987 F.2d 743, 746-47 (Fed. Cir. 1993).

[updated September 2013; cited in USAM 4-4.420]