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Laramie County School District No. One v. Cheyenne Newspapers

March 29, 2011

LARAMIE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. ONE, APPELLANT (DEFENDANT),
v.
CHEYENNE NEWSPAPERS, INC., D/B/A WYOMING TRIBUNE EAGLE, AND D. REED ECKHARDT, APPELLEES (PLAINTIFFS).



Appeal from the District Court of Laramie County The Honorable Michael K. Davis, Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Golden, Justice.

Before KITE, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, VOIGT, and BURKE, JJ.

NOTICE:

This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in Pacific Reporter Third. Readers are requested to notify the Clerk of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Building, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82002, of any typographical or other formal errors so that correction may be made before final publication in the permanent volume.

[¶1] Laramie County School District Number One (District) appeals from the district court's summary judgment in favor of Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc., d/b/a Wyoming Tribune Eagle, and D. Reed Eckhardt (Newspaper). As the parties agreed that no genuine issues of material fact existed, the district court ruled as a matter of law that the Wyoming Public Records Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 16-4-201 through 205 (LexisNexis 2009), read in conjunction with a provision of the Wyoming Education Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 21-3-110(a)(ii)(A) (LexisNexis 2009), entitled Newspaper to information concerning the names and salaries of the individual employees of District.

[¶2] Having reviewed this appeal under our standard of review for summary judgments, Bangs v. Schroth, 2009 WY 20, ¶ 20, 201 P.3d 442, 451-52 (Wyo. 2009), we now affirm the district court's summary judgment in favor of Newspaper. The district court explained its decision in a well-organized and most thoughtful decision letter dated August 13, 2010, with which we are in complete agreement. Consequently, in the interests of judicial economy, we herewith adopt that decision letter as this Court's official opinion in this case. We now set out the pertinent parts of that decision letter:

FACTS

The facts of this case are not in dispute. In a letter dated December 11, 2009, representatives of Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc., which publishes the Wyoming Tribune Eagle (hereinafter the newspaper), requested that Laramie County School District Number One (the district) provide it with "all employment contracts or any other records depicting employee names in conjunction with their salaries or a listing of employee names with salaries." The letter stated that the request was made under the Wyoming Public Records Act (WPRA), Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 16-4-201 through 16-[4]-205 (LexisNexis 2009).

John Lyttle, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources for the School District, responded by letter dated December 17, 2009. Mr. Lyttle denied the newspaper's request for the information, citing Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 21-3-110(a)(ii)(A) (LexisNexis 2009), a provision in the Wyoming Education Code (WEC). The district is obligated by that statute to publish the salaries of its employees by category without reference to the names of individual employees. The district contends that the statute makes it unlawful to disclose any individual employee's name and salary.

The Plaintiffs, who include D. Reed Eckhardt, the executive editor of the Tribune Eagle, initiated this suit within three months of the denied request. The complaint asked that the Court require the district to show cause as to why inspection of the requested records should not be permitted. The district timely answered, and the Court held a scheduling conference on May 19, 2010. In addition to the position described above, the district also claimed that disclosure of the names of certain employees with their salaries would do substantial injury to the public interest. A specific example given was that of an employee who had eluded a stalker and whose whereabouts might become known if his or her name and salary were published. The district concedes that the number of employees who would fall into this latter category must be small.

The Court established a schedule for determination of the broader issue, which is whether the district must generally disclose salary information in conjunction with the names of its employees, so that a member of the press or public could learn how much any particular district employee earns. The narrower issue of whether specific records might be withheld to protect particular employees was deferred. The parties thereafter filed the dispositive motions and accompanying briefs which this letter addresses.

ISSUE PRESENTED

Does the Wyoming Public Records Act, read in conjunction with the Wyoming Education Code, entitle the Plaintiffs to information concerning the names and salaries of individual employees of a school district?

DISCUSSION

Standard of Review. The parties agreed at the scheduling conference that there are no genuine issues of fact regarding the above issue. The construction of the two statutes in this case is purely a legal issue which the Court can presently decide. Harper v. Fidelity and Guaranty Life Insurance Company, 2010 WY 89, ¶ 11[, 234 P.3d 1211, 1216] (Wyo. 2010); Wyo. R. Civ. Proc. 56(c). Thus, whether this issue is framed as a motion for judgment on the pleadings or a motion for summary judgment, it places the legal question to which the parties seek an answer squarely before the Court.

Disclosure. Both parties argue that the Wyoming Legislature has decided the question before the Court in clear and unambiguous terms, although they argue diametrically opposed contentions as to what the legislature decided. The Court will begin with a survey of the WPRA's structure and some of its specific provisions. As a general proposition, the WPRA mandates that all public records "shall be open for inspection by any person at reasonable times."*fn1 Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 16-4-202(a) (LexisNexis 2009). The policy behind the rule is well settled as "one of disclosure, not secrecy," as "the legislature of this state has stressed the importance of making available to the public agency records." Freudenthal v. Cheyenne Newspaper, Inc., 2010 WY 80, ¶ 18, [233 P.3d 933, 938 (Wyo. 2010),] quoting Laramie River Conservation Council v. Dinger, 567 P.2d 731, 733 (Wyo. 1977). The state, its agencies, and local government entities are therefore required to operate in a "fishbowl" with only a few necessary exceptions. Id., citing Allsop v. Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc., 2002 WY 22, ¶ 10, 39 P.3d 1092, 1095-96 (Wyo. 2002). The Supreme Court has thus construed the WPRA to generally guarantee the public's right to access to documents which will reveal the details of operations of governmental entities, with some exceptions.

The WPRA also contains specific provisions which relate to personnel information. Wyoming Statute ยง 16-4-203(d) ...


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