Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance v. San Juan County Commission, 022521 UTSC, 20180410

Docket Nº20180410
Opinion JudgeDurrant Chief Justice
Party NameSouthern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Appellant, v. San Juan County Commission, Appellee.
AttorneyTroy L. Booher, J. Frederic Voros, Dick J. Baldwin, Stephen H. M. Bloch, Laura E. Peterson, Salt Lake City, for appellant Kendall G. Laws, Matthew J. Brooks, Monticello; Stewart O. Peay, John W. Andrews, Kristin A. Baughman, Salt Lake City, for appellee
Judge PanelChief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, Justice Pearce, and Justice Petersen joined.
Case DateFebruary 25, 2021
CourtSupreme Court of Utah

2021 UT 6

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Appellant,

v.

San Juan County Commission, Appellee.

No. 20180410

Supreme Court of Utah

February 25, 2021

Heard September 9, 2020

On Direct Appeal Seventh District, San Juan The Honorable Lyle R. Anderson No. 170700016

Troy L. Booher, J. Frederic Voros, Dick J. Baldwin, Stephen H. M. Bloch, Laura E. Peterson, Salt Lake City, for appellant

Kendall G. Laws, Matthew J. Brooks, Monticello; Stewart O. Peay, John W. Andrews, Kristin A. Baughman, Salt Lake City, for appellee

Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, Justice Pearce, and Justice Petersen joined.

Durrant Chief Justice

Introduction

¶1 The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) filed a complaint in which it alleged that the San Juan County Commission violated a number of SUWA's rights under Utah's Open and Public Meetings Act.[1] The Act requires the Commission to comply with certain requirements whenever the Commission convenes a meeting for the purpose of discussing, receiving public comment about, or acting upon a "matter" over which the Commission has "jurisdiction or advisory power." But the district court dismissed SUWA's complaint because, in the court's view, SUWA failed to allege that the participants in the meetings in question had discussed a matter over which the Commission had jurisdiction or advisory power. We disagree with the court's determination.

¶2 The district court interpreted the terms "matter," "jurisdiction," and "advisory power," as they appear in the Act, to limit the Act's application to only those meetings in which a public body discusses taking a potential action within its authority, receives public comment about taking a potential action, or votes to take an action. But although the court may have correctly interpreted the Act, we nevertheless reverse its dismissal of SUWA's complaint and remand for additional proceedings without addressing the merits of the court's interpretation.2

¶3 We do so because the district court appears to have based its dismissal of SUWA's claims on certain factual assumptions that do not necessarily follow from the allegations in SUWA's complaint. And with a correct view of SUWA's complaint in mind, we conclude that, even under the court's (and the Commission's) interpretation of the Act, SUWA's complaint was sufficient to survive dismissal.3

Background

¶4 Throughout May and June of 2017, the San Juan County Commission met with members of the federal government on multiple occasions to discuss the federal government's potential revocation, or potential partial revocation, of the Bears Ears National Monument. In these meetings, participants also allegedly discussed the implications this action would have for San Juan County's political, economic, business, and development interests and relationships. The Commission did not provide public notice for the meetings nor did it allow the public to attend.

¶5 After learning about the meetings, SUWA filed its complaint, alleging that the Commission had violated Utah's Open and Public Meetings Act by failing to provide public notice of the meetings and by not permitting the public to attend.4According to SUWA's allegations, the Act governed the meetings because the participants discussed "matters over which [the Commission] exercise[s] jurisdiction [or] advisory power."

¶6 After the complaint was filed, the district court dismissed the lawsuit, under rule 12(b)(6) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, for a failure to state a claim warranting relief. According to the court, the Act did not apply to the meetings in question because the Commission did not have jurisdiction or advisory power over the matters discussed. The court also imposed sanctions on SUWA for violating rule 11(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. According to the court, SUWA violated rule 11(b) by raising frivolous legal arguments and bringing a lawsuit for an improper purpose.[5]

¶7 SUWA appeals both decisions. We have jurisdiction under Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(j).

Standards of Review

¶8 We must address two issues on appeal. The first is whether SUWA has standing to bring a claim against the Commission under the Act. When evaluating standing at the motion-to-dismiss stage, the question of standing is primarily a question of law, which we review for correctness.6

¶9 The second issue is whether the district court erred in granting the Commission's rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. We "review the grant of a motion to dismiss for correctness, granting no deference to the decision of the district court."[7]

Analysis

¶10 SUWA argues that the district court erred in dismissing its complaint. According to SUWA, the district court (and the Commission) have interpreted the Act too narrowly. But we reverse the district court's dismissal of SUWA's complaint without deciding between the parties' competing interpretations of the Act. This is because even were we to adopt the Commission's proposed interpretation, we would nevertheless conclude that SUWA has made sufficient allegations to defeat a motion to dismiss.

¶11 SUWA also argues the district court erred in imposing rule 11 sanctions. Because our decision regarding the district court's dismissal upends the basis of the court's rule 11 order, we likewise reverse that order.

¶12 We discuss our reasoning in greater detail below. But before we address the merits of this appeal, we must consider whether SUWA has standing.

I. SUWA Has Standing

¶13 The Commission argues SUWA does not have standing to raise the issue of whether SUWA's rights under the Act were violated. According to the Commission, SUWA lacks standing because, under a correct interpretation of the Act, SUWA did not have a right to attend the meetings in question. But the Commission mistakenly conflates the issue of standing with the merits of SUWA's claim.

¶14 A challenge to a party's standing, "in contrast to challenges to the merits of a plaintiff's claims, raises fundamental questions regarding a court's basic authority over the dispute."8To have standing, a party must satisfy our three-part test for standing. First, the party must "assert that it has been or will be adversely affected by the [challenged] actions."9 Second, it must "allege a causal relationship between the injury to the party, the [challenged] actions, and the relief requested."10 And third, it must "request relief that is substantially likely to redress the injury claimed."11 SUWA satisfies these requirements.12

A. SUWA satisfies the "adversely affected" requirement

¶15 SUWA argues the Commission's alleged violation adversely affected SUWA because the violation denied SUWA its statutory right to receive notice of, and to attend, the meetings held by members of the Commission. When a party argues that a right conferred by statute has been violated, we resolve the "adversely affected" issue by first determining "what class of plaintiffs the [statute] grants a right to sue and whether [the plaintiff in the case] is within that class."13 In other words, we must determine whether the plaintiff has a "legally protectible interest" conferred by statute.14

¶16 This part of the analysis looks at the rights generally conferred by the statute. So in this case we must determine whether the Act generally provides SUWA with a right to sue for violations of the Act. We conclude it does.

¶17 The Act states that "meetings" must be "open to the public"15 and that the public body convening the meeting must provide at least "24 hours' public notice of each meeting."16 And the Act provides that a "person denied any right under [the Act] may commence suit in a court of competent jurisdiction to (a)compel compliance with or enjoin violations of [the Act], or (b)determine the [Act's] applicability to discussions or decisions of a public body."17 Based on these provisions, we conclude that SUWA falls within the class of persons sought to be protected by the Act and that the Act provides SUWA with a right to sue for violations of the Act. But that does not end the "adversely affected" inquiry.

¶18 Where a plaintiff falls within a class protected by statute, we must also determine, based on the specific facts in the case, whether the plaintiff has suffered "some distinct and palpable injury that gives him a personal stake in the outcome of the legal dispute."18 At the pleading stage, this merely requires the plaintiff to plead an "adequate factual context to satisfy our notice pleading requirements."19 In other words, the plaintiff must allege sufficient facts so that the defendant is reasonably aware of the conduct it allegedly engaged in and of how that conduct allegedly injured the plaintiff. SUWA satisfies this test.

¶19 In its complaint, SUWA alleged that (1) on multiple occasions, members of the Commission attended meetings with officials of the Federal Government, (2) the Commission did not provide public notice of the meetings or allow members of the public (including SUWA's members) to attend, and (3) the Commission's failure to provide notice or open up the meeting for public attendance violated SUWA's rights under the Act. So SUWA has identified a distinct injury-the loss of an opportunity to hear about and attend certain meetings it wanted to attend. This satisfies the "adversely affected" requirement.

B. SUWA satisfies the "causal relationship" requirement

¶20 SUWA has also sufficiently alleged a causal relationship between its asserted injury and the challenged action. SUWA alleged that its members were available and would have attended the meetings had the Commission provided public notice and permitted public...

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