Wood v. Battle Ground School Dist.

Citation107 Wn. App. 550,107 Wash. App. 550,27 P.3d 1208
Decision Date27 July 2001
Docket NumberNo. 25332-1-II.,25332-1-II.
PartiesJennifer WOOD, Respondent and Cross Appellant, v. BATTLE GROUND SCHOOL DISTRICT, Battle Ground School District Board, and Roger Sharp, Sam Kim, and Fred Striker, Appellants and Cross Respondents.
CourtCourt of Appeals of Washington

27 P.3d 1208
107 Wn.
App. 550
107 Wash. App. 550

Jennifer WOOD, Respondent and Cross Appellant,
BATTLE GROUND SCHOOL DISTRICT, Battle Ground School District Board, and Roger Sharp, Sam Kim, and Fred Striker, Appellants and Cross Respondents

No. 25332-1-II.

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2.

July 27, 2001.

27 P.3d 1212
Bruce Colven, Morse & Bratt, Vancouver, for Respondent and Cross Appellant

Mark Steven Northcraft, Dennis Gregory Woods, Northcraft & Woods, P.C., Seattle, for Appellants and Cross Respondents.

27 P.3d 1209
27 P.3d 1210

27 P.3d 1211

This case involves the scope of the Open Public Meetings Act of 1971 (OPMA). We hold that the OPMA does not cover persons elected but not yet sworn into public office, but that under some circumstances electronic mail communications can constitute a "meeting." Regarding the cross-appeal of a summary judgment dismissal of Jennifer Wood's

27 P.3d 1213
defamation claim, we hold that the school board president has a qualified privilege but does not have absolute immunity. Consequently, we reverse the summary judgment on both claims and remand for trial.


In November 1997, Roger Sharp, Fred Striker, and David Sonntag were elected to the Battle Ground School Board (Board) and they took the oath of office on November 26, 1997. They joined continuing members Sam Kim and Pat Cherry. Dr. Leo Beck was the Battle Ground School District (District) superintendent at the time, a position he held until December 9, 1997.

Wood worked for the District since 1989. In 1991, she began working for superintendent Beck; in 1994, she became an administrative assistant; and in 1996, she also took on the responsibilities of the District's communications coordinator with a corresponding pay raise.

On November 15, 1997, members-elect Sharp, Striker, and Sonntag met with Board member Kim at Sonntag's house where they discussed, among other matters, Beck and Wood. There were rumors that Sharp had a "hit list" of District employees that he wanted to terminate because he felt they were overpaid, under-performing, and otherwise unqualified; that list included Beck and Wood. Sharp, Striker, Sonntag, and Kim also exchanged electronic mail (e-mail) messages about Board business before and after the three members-elect took the oath of office.

At the newly constituted Board's first meeting on November 26, 1997, the members elected Sharp as Board president. The Board later discussed Beck and Wood in an executive session.

After Beck resigned under an agreement with the District, rotating interim superintendents served for the 1997-1998 academic year. Although each of the interim superintendents stated that Wood's performance had been competent to excellent, Sharp discussed with them the possibility of removing her from the District. In an effort to retain Wood, on January 5, 1998, an interim superintendent reassigned her to the position of print shop supervisor.

On January 28, 1998, the local newspaper, The Reflector, printed an article attributing to Sharp a statement that Wood's performance as communications coordinator was "lacking." Sharp's statement was in response to a Reflector reporter's inquiry about Wood's performance or about why the District was not renewing her contract. Wood's contract with the District expired in August 1998 and her employee file reflects that she was terminated.

Wood then sued the District, the Board, Sharp, Kim, and Striker for violations of the Public Disclosure Act and the OPMA and she sued Sharp for defamation. Following cross motions for summary judgment, the trial court granted summary judgment to Wood on her OPMA claim and granted summary judgment to the defendants on Wood's defamation claim. The court imposed a $200 statutory penalty against each individual defendant for two OPMA violations and awarded Wood her attorney fees.

Wood moved for reconsideration on her defamation claim and the defendants responded with a CR 11 motion for sanctions, asserting that Wood's motion merely reiterated the facts and argument she had previously presented to the trial court. The court denied both motions.


In reviewing a summary judgment decision, we engage in the same inquiry as the trial court. Herron v. Tribune Publ'g Co., 108 Wash.2d 162, 169, 736 P.2d 249 (1987). Thus, summary judgment is appropriate if the evidence, viewed in the nonmoving party's favor, shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. CR 56(c); Wilson v. Steinbach, 98 Wash.2d 434, 437, 656 P.2d 1030 (1982). We will grant the motion only if reasonable persons could reach but one conclusion. Wilson, 98 Wash.2d at 437, 656 P.2d 1030.

27 P.3d 1214

The OPMA provides that "[a]ll meetings of the governing body of a public agency shall be open and public and all persons shall be permitted to attend any meeting of the governing body of a public agency, except as otherwise provided in this chapter." RCW 42.30.030. Failure to comply subjects members to civil penalties:

(1) Each member of the governing body who attends a meeting of such governing body where action is taken in violation of any provision of this chapter applicable to him, with knowledge of the fact that the meeting is in violation thereof, shall be subject to personal liability in the form of a civil penalty in the amount of one hundred dollars. The civil penalty shall be assessed by a judge of the superior court and an action to enforce this penalty may be brought by any person....

RCW 42.30.120 (emphasis added). Thus, to enforce this provision, the party bringing the action must show (1) that a "member" of a governing body (2) attended a "meeting" of that body (3) where "action" was taken in violation of the OPMA, and (4) that the member had "knowledge" that the meeting violated the OPMA.

Our review of Wood's claim is de novo because it involves interpreting and construing the OPMA. Wash. State Republican Party v. Wash. State Pub. Disclosure Comm'n, 141 Wash.2d 245, 254, 4 P.3d 808 (2000). In construing statutes, we seek to effectuate the legislative intent, which we discern "from the statutory text as a whole, interpreted in terms of the general object and purpose of the legislation." Group Health Coop. of Puget Sound, Inc. v. Dep't of Revenue, 106 Wash.2d 391, 401, 722 P.2d 787 (1986). See also Cockle v. Dep't of Labor & Indus., 142 Wash.2d 801, 807, 16 P.3d 583 (2001). We do not resort to statutory construction methods where the statutory language is plain and unambiguous. Rettkowski v. Dep't of Ecology, 128 Wash.2d 508, 515, 910 P.2d 462 (1996). A statute is ambiguous and, thus, subject to judicial construction if it is susceptible of more than one reasonable interpretation. Vashon Island Comm. for Self-Gov't v. Wash. State Boundary Review Bd. for King County, 127 Wash.2d 759, 771, 903 P.2d 953 (1995).


Wood contends that members-elect are "members" of the governing body for purposes of the OPMA before they take the oath of office. She argues that when a member-elect acts with the intent to evade the OPMA, public policy supports its application.

The OPMA does not define "member" and its definition of "governing body" is ambiguous. It defines "governing body" as "the multimember board, commission, committee, council, or other policy or rulemaking body of a public agency, or any committee thereof when the committee acts on behalf of the governing body, conducts hearings, or takes testimony or public comment." RCW 42.30.020(2). The OPMA defines "action" as "the transaction of the official business of a public agency by a governing body including but not limited to receipt of public testimony, deliberations, discussions, considerations, reviews, evaluations, and final actions."1 RCW 42.30.020(3).

The legislature declared the OPMA's purpose in forceful terms:

The legislature finds and declares that all public commissions, boards, councils, committees, subcommittees, departments, divisions, offices, and all other public agencies of this state and subdivisions thereof exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of this chapter that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.

The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for

27 P.3d 1215
them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.

RCW 42.30.010. See also RCW 42.30.910 (directing that the OPMA be liberally construed); Equitable Shipyards, Inc. v. State, 93 Wash.2d 465, 482, 611 P.2d 396 (1980) ("We recognize the statutory statement of purpose in [the OPMA] employs some of the strongest language used in any legislation.").

The OPMA was modeled on California's and Florida's open meetings laws. 1971 Op. Atty. Gen. No. 33, at 2. Thus, decisions from those jurisdictions provide guidance in interpreting Washington law. See Anaya v. Graham, 89 Wash.App. 588, 592, 950 P.2d 16 (1998) (analogous federal laws provide guidance for statutory interpretation issues). But California and Florida courts have reached dissimilar conclusions on whether their open meetings laws cover members-elect.

A Florida appellate court applied that state's open meetings statute, the Government in the Sunshine Law, to a meeting between two councilmen-elect and one council member. Hough v. Stembridge, 278 So.2d 288, 289 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.1973). In rejecting the argument that the gathering did not constitute a meeting of the governing body, the Hough court stated:

We simply cannot accept this line of reasoning. To adopt this viewpoint would in effect permit as in the case sub judice

To continue reading

Request your trial
75 cases
  • Petcu v. State
    • United States
    • Washington Court of Appeals
    • 30 Marzo 2004
    ...submitted and all reasonable inferences from them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Wood v. Battle Ground Sch. Dist., 107 Wash. App. 550, 557, 27 P.3d 1208 (2001). "The nonmoving party may not rely on speculation, argumentative assertions that unresolved factual issues rem......
  • Life Designs Ranch, Inc. v. Sommer
    • United States
    • Washington Court of Appeals
    • 12 Noviembre 2015
    ...54 Wash.2d 743, 751, 344 P.2d 705 (1959) ; Spangler v. Glover, 50 Wash.2d 473, 313 P.2d 354 (1957) ; Wood v. Battle Ground Sch. Dist., 107 Wash.App. 550, 573–74, 27 P.3d 1208 (2001) ; Maison de France, Ltd. v. Mais Oui!, Inc., 126 Wash.App. 34, 108 P.3d 787 (2005) ; Haueter v. Cowles Publ'g......
  • Alpine Industries v. Cowles Pub. Co.
    • United States
    • Washington Court of Appeals
    • 21 Noviembre 2002
    ...LaMon v. Butler, 112 Wash.2d 193, 197, 770 P.2d 1027 (1989); Mark, 96 Wash.2d at 486, 635 P.2d 1081; Wood v. Battleground Sch. Dist. No. I, 107 Wash.App. 550, 27 P.3d 1208 (2001). "The prima facie case must consist of specific, material facts, rather than conclusory statements, that would a......
  • Loeffelholz v. CITIZENS FOR LEADERS
    • United States
    • Washington Court of Appeals
    • 13 Enero 2004
    ...215, 356 P.2d 97 (1960) and Purvis v. Bremer's, Inc., 54 Wash.2d 743, 753, 344 P.2d 705 (1959)). See also Wood v. Battle Ground Sch. Dist., 107 Wash.App. 550, 572, 27 P.3d 1208 (2001) ("The court must decide whether the statement is capable of a defamatory meaning and the jury decides wheth......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT