Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance v. Kane County Commission, 022521 UTSC, 20180454

Docket Nº20180454
Opinion JudgeDurrant Chief Justice
Party NameSouthern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Appellant and Cross-Appellee, v. Kane County Commission, Appellee and Cross-Appellant and Garfield County Commission, Appellee.
AttorneyDavid C. Reymann, Austin J. Riter, Salt Lake City, for appellant and cross-appellee Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Shawn T. Welch, Richard D. Flint, Timothy M. Bagshaw, Chelsea J. Davis, Salt Lake City, for appellee and cross-appellant Kane County Commission Peter Stirba, Matthew Strout, Ciera...
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 7

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Appellant and Cross-Appellee,

v.

Kane County Commission, Appellee and Cross-Appellant

and

Garfield County Commission, Appellee.

No. 20180454

Supreme Court of Utah

February 25, 2021

Heard September 9, 2020

On Direct Appeal Sixth District, Garfield The Honorable Marvin D. Bagley No. 170600020

David C. Reymann, Austin J. Riter, Salt Lake City, for appellant and cross-appellee Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Shawn T. Welch, Richard D. Flint, Timothy M. Bagshaw, Chelsea J. Davis, Salt Lake City, for appellee and cross-appellant Kane County Commission

Peter Stirba, Matthew Strout, Ciera Archuleta, Salt Lake City, for appellee Garfield County Commission

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) accuses the Kane and Garfield County Commissions of violating Utah's Open and Public Meetings Act.1 According to SUWA, the Commissions violated the Act when they failed to provide public notice or to allow attendance at certain meetings members of the Commissions had with Ryan Zinke, the United States Secretary of the Interior. SUWA claims the meetings were held to discuss the federal government's potential reduction of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. When SUWA sued to remedy this alleged violation, the district court dismissed its complaint for lack of standing and because it concluded that the Act did not apply to the meetings in question. We reverse this dismissal on both grounds.

¶2 First, we conclude SUWA has standing to bring these claims. The district court determined that SUWA lacked standing because, under the court's interpretation of the Act, the Commissions had not violated SUWA's statutory right. But this analysis mistakenly conflated the issue of standing with the merits of SUWA's claims. And, because SUWA's complaint satisfies our standing requirements, we conclude that SUWA has standing to argue that the Commission violated the Act. Accordingly, we reverse the district court's "standing" determination.

¶3 We also reverse the court's decision on the motion to dismiss. The court dismissed SUWA's complaint based on the court's interpretation of the Act. According to the court, the Act did not apply in this case because the Commissions lacked jurisdiction or advisory power over any action contemplated in the meetings in question. We reverse this decision without offering a definitive interpretation of the Act.2

¶4 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 SUWA adequately pled a violation of the Act, even were we prepared to accept the district court's interpretation of the Act at this stage of the litigation. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for additional proceedings.3

Background

¶5 On May 10, 2017, the two Commissions met separately with Ryan Zinke, the United States Secretary of the Interior, to discuss the potential reduction of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (the Monument). The Commissions did not publicly notice these meetings, open them to the public, or keep written minutes of what was addressed. But several months prior to the meetings, the Commissions for both counties had held open, publicly noticed meetings where they passed resolutions expressing their opposition to the Monument and their support for its potential reduction.

¶6 On August 15, 2017, SUWA filed a complaint alleging that the Commissions violated the Act by failing to publicly notice their meetings with Secretary Zinke, open them to the public, or create and make accessible written minutes of what transpired.4SUWA also alleged that the content of these meetings included the "potential implications for [the Counties'] political, economic, business, and development interests and relationships; and other similar matters over which [the Commissions] exercise jurisdiction or advisory power." Finally, SUWA sought a decree that these meetings violated the Act and an injunction compelling the Commissions to comply with the Act's provisions.

¶7 In response, the Commissions moved to dismiss SUWA's complaint under Utah Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). The court granted this motion under both rules. It dismissed the complaint under rule 12(b)(6) because it concluded that the Commissions' meetings with Secretary Zinke were not subject to the Act as the Commissions lacked "jurisdiction or advisory power" over the matters discussed.5 Additionally, the court held that the meetings fell within an exception to the Act because they dealt solely with "administrative or operational matters."6 And, because the meetings were not subject to the Act, the court ruled that SUWA had not been denied a right under the Act and thus lacked standing under rule 12(b)(1).

¶8 After the court dismissed SUWA's complaint, the Commissions filed a motion for attorney fees under Utah Code section 78B-5-825. They argued they were entitled to attorney fees because SUWA's claims lacked merit and were brought in bad faith. The district court agreed and granted this motion.

¶9 Following this decision, the Commissions submitted their requests for attorney fees. The Kane County Commission requested $60, 207.50 in fees, while the Garfield County Commission requested $21, 910.00. On April 12, 2019, the district court entered an order awarding the Garfield County Commission its requested amount. But the court reduced the Kane County Commission's award to $30, 673.50.

¶10 SUWA now appeals both the dismissal of its complaint and this fee award. The Kane County Commission also appeals the district court's reduction of its fee request. We have jurisdiction under Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(j).

Standard of Review

¶11 SUWA asks us to decide whether the district court erred in dismissing its complaint under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) for lack of standing and Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. These are questions of law that we review for correctness.7

Analysis

¶12 SUWA raises two issues. First, it claims the district court erred in dismissing its complaint for lack of standing under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). We reverse on this issue because the district court conflated the merits of SUWA's claims with its standing to sue. Merits aside, SUWA has standing because it has statutory authorization to sue and it alleged facts demonstrating a distinct and palpable injury.

¶13 Second, SUWA argues the district court erred in dismissing its complaint for failure to state a claim under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). We also reverse on this issue. The district court held, based on its interpretation of the Act, that the Commissions' meetings with Secretary Zinke did not qualify as "meetings" under the Act. But we reverse because, even were we to adopt the court's interpretation of the Act at this stage, we would nevertheless conclude that the allegations in SUWA's complaint were sufficient to survive dismissal.

I. SUWA Has Standing

¶14 SUWA claims the district court erred in dismissing its complaint for lack of standing under rule 12(b)(1). According to the court, SUWA lacked standing because the Commissions' meetings with Secretary Zinke were "not subject to the [A]ct and neither SUWA nor its members were denied a right under the [A]ct." Because this ruling conflates our standing inquiry with the merits of SUWA's claims, we reverse. And after evaluating SUWA's allegations under the appropriate standard, we conclude that SUWA has standing.

A. The District Court Erred in Conflating Our Standing Inquiry with the Merits of SUWA's Claims

¶15 The district court held that SUWA lacked standing because the Commissions' meetings with Secretary Zinke did not fall within the statutory definition of "meeting" under the Act. According to the district court, because the meetings were not subject to the Act, neither SUWA nor its members were denied any rights. So they could not show "any injury, let alone a particularized injury." We reject this line of reasoning because it addresses the merits rather than the justiciability of SUWA's claims.8

¶16 "[S]tanding is a jurisdictional requirement that must be satisfied before a court may entertain a controversy between two parties."9 Our traditional standing test requires plaintiffs to allege that they have "suffered or will suffer[] some distinct and palpable injury that gives [them] a personal stake in the outcome of the legal dispute."10 "At the pleading stage of litigation," plaintiffs may satisfy this test "by alleging that . . . they [have been] injured by the defendant's conduct, so long as the complaint contains adequate factual context to satisfy our notice pleading requirements."11 "For purposes of a motion to dismiss," such an allegation "will be assumed to =embrace those specific facts that are necessary to support the claim.'"12

¶17 Although "not identical," our standing test is similar to the one used in federal courts.[13] Both tests require a plaintiff to show "that he or she suffered an invasion of a legally protected interest that is concrete and particularized."14 And in the federal context, the United States Supreme Court has made clear that "standing in no way depends on the merits of the plaintiff's contention that particular conduct is illegal."15 As a result, federal courts have consistently recognized that "a plaintiff can have...

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