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Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc. v. Board of Trustees of Laramie County School District Number One

Supreme Court of Wyoming

November 30, 2016

CHEYENNE NEWSPAPERS, INC., d/b/a Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Appellant (Plaintiff),

         Appeal from the District Court of Laramie County The Honorable Thomas T.C. Campbell, Judge

          Representing Appellant: Bruce T. Moats, Law Office of Bruce T. Moats, P.C., Cheyenne, WY.

          Representing Appellee: Evans and O'Kelly H. Pearson of Hickey & Evans, LLP, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Evans.

          Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, JJ.

          HILL, Justice.

         [¶1] This dispute stems from a public records request that Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc. (the Tribune-Eagle) submitted to Laramie County School District No. One (the School District). The Tribune-Eagle asked to inspect certain school board member email communications, and in response, the School District retrieved the emails, downloaded them to a compact disc, and made the compact disc available to the Tribune-Eagle, subject to a fee for the time School District staff spent retrieving the records. The Tribune-Eagle thereafter filed a declaratory judgment action against the School District requesting a ruling that the Wyoming Public Records Act does not allow a government entity to charge for access to electronic records when the request is for inspection of the records and not for a copy of the records. The District Court ruled in favor of the School District, and the Tribune-Eagle appealed. We affirm.


         [¶2] The Tribune-Eagle submits six issues on appeal, which, based on the facts of this case, we narrow to the following two questions:

         1. May a government entity charge for producing a copy of an electronic record when the public record applicant frames its request as a request only to inspect the record?

         2. May a government entity charge for labor costs incurred in responding to a request for access to an electronic record?


         [¶3] On February 11, 2014, the Tribune-Eagle, through one of its reporters, submitted a public records request to the School District, asking to inspect "[a]ll email on school board topics to, among or from school board members since Dec. 1, 2013." Because school board members use their personal email addresses to conduct school board business, the request required a search and retrieval of emails from personal email accounts of the board members as well as from the School District's computer system. On March 11, 2014, district superintendant, Dr. Mark J. Stock, responded by letter to the Tribune-Eagle's request and advised that a compact disc of the requested emails was available for pick up at the superintendant's office. Citing the School District's policy governing fees that may be charged for responding to a public records request, Dr. Stock informed the Tribune-Eagle that it would be charged $110 for the compact disc, consisting of "[o]ne hour by clerical staff ($20)" and "three hours by professional personnel (3 x $30)."

         [¶4] The Tribune-Eagle asked the School District to reconsider the fee, and when the School District refused, the Tribune-Eagle filed a declaratory judgment action against it. The Tribune-Eagle sought a ruling that the Public Records Act does not allow the School District to charge for a request to inspect an electronic record, and it also sought injunctive relief barring the School District from charging for staff time for any future inspection or copying of records.

         [¶5] Following discovery, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment by which they agreed that there were no disputed issues of material fact and that the question on which a ruling was requested was a question of law. In the School District's Rule 56.1 statement of undisputed facts, it described the steps required to retrieve the requested emails and the costs it included in its fee as follows (record cites omitted):

4. After receiving the Newspaper's request, the District's Instructional Technology (IT) department was instructed to search for emails responsive to the request.
5. Actions taken by the IT network engineer to search and produce responsive records included creating a series of computer commands to locate e-mailboxes, filter the results to only include e-mail to and from board members by inputting each of their personal e-mail addresses, verifying the accuracy of the commands, correcting the commands, and outputting the results into another mailbox for export.
6. The breadth of the Newspaper's request required the District's network engineer to look at every item on the District's computer server including e-mail, calendar, contact, task, and note items.
7. The final step in this process was putting the results into a single file and exporting or burning the Electronic Records to a CD.
8. The entire process took several attempts by the District's network engineer and several hours of his time and computer time to run and yield results.
9. Unless a board member's email is sent and delivered to someone with a district email address, the email is not captured on the District's computer system.
10. The District's network engineer provided direct assistance to individual board members such as reviewing the board member's computer, personal email account, showing the board member how to go through her messages.
11. The District did not charge the Newspaper for these efforts.
12. The superintendant's executive assistant copied emails between board members and with the superintendant, received e-mails from board members from their personal computers and forwarded them to IT.
13. The executive assistant tracked the amount of time she spent but did not include any of the time she spent communicating with board members about getting e-mails off of their personal computers.

         [¶6] The district court ruled, as a matter of law, that the School District was entitled to the fees it charged the Tribune-Eagle for access to the requested emails. The court reasoned:

7. Resolution of the matter requires the Court to interpret the statutes that apply to this case. W.S. 16-4-202 and 16-4-204 recognize that records and documents are routinely maintained in electronic formats. * * * [W.S. 16-4-202] goes on to provide that, "the reasonable costs of producing a copy of the public record shall be borne by the party making the request. The costs may include the cost of producing a copy of the public record and the cost of constructing the record, including the cost of programming and computer services." In producing or constructing the record, the District had to first locate the electronic records and then review the information to produce the records. The reasonable costs associated with producing the record may be passed on or charged to the party requesting the documents.
8. A separate section of the Act generally addresses inspection and fees: "In all cases in which a person has the right to inspect and copy any public records he may request that he be furnished copies, printouts or photographs for a reasonable fee to be set by the official custodian. Where fees for certified copies or other copies, printouts or photographs of the record are specifically prescribed by law, the specific fees shall apply. Nothing in this section shall be construed as authorizing a fee to be charged as a condition of making a public record available for inspection." W.S. 16-4-204(a). The statute allows fees to be authorized by statute, rule, resolution, ordinance, executive order, or other like authority (W.S. 16-4-204(c)). The District's Guideline for Electronic Records clearly sets out the reasonable costs for production of a public record; such costs are authorized by the Act and that was the policy utilized in reaching the costs for the production of the email records.

         [¶7] The Tribune-Eagle timely filed a notice of appeal to this Court.


         [¶8] We review a summary judgment entered in a declaratory judgment action as follows:

We review a grant of summary judgment entered in response to a declaratory judgment action through our usual standard for review of summary judgments. Arnold, ¶ 13, 201 P.3d at 1132; Voss [v. Goodman], ¶ 9, 203 P.3d [415] at 419 [(Wyo.2009)]. Our review of a district court's summary judgment ruling is de novo, using the same materials and following the same standards as the district court. Arnold, ¶ 13, 201 P.3d at 1132; W.R.C.P. 56(c). No deference is accorded to the district court on issues of law, and we may affirm the summary judgment on any legal grounds appearing in the record. Voss, ¶ 9, 203 P.3d at 419. "The summary judgment can be sustained only when no genuine issues of material fact are present and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. (quoting Wyo. Cmty. Coll. Comm'n [v. Casper Cmty. College Dist.], ¶ 11, 31 P.3d [1242] at 1247 [(Wyo.2001)]).

Cont'l Western Ins. Co. v. Black, 2015 WY 145, ¶ 13, 361 P.3d 841, 845 (Wyo. 2015) (quoting City of Casper v. Holloway, 2015 WY 93, ¶¶ 27-28, 354 P.3d 65, 73 (Wyo. 2015)).


         [¶9] This appeal presents no disputed issues of fact, and therefore our sole task is to determine whether the Wyoming Public Records Act allows the School District to charge the fees it assessed in this case. In particular, we must first determine whether the Act's provision governing access to electronic records allows a government entity to charge a fee for that access under the circumstances of this case. We must then determine whether the fee charged for access to electronic documents may include labor costs incurred in responding to the request. Both of these determinations are questions of statutory interpretation.

         [¶10] Our goal of statutory interpretation and the rules that aid us in the task are well established:

In any question of statutory interpretation, our primary objective is to give effect to the legislature's intent. L & L Enters. v. Arellano (In re Arellano), 2015 WY 21, ¶ 13, 344 P.3d 249, 252 (Wyo.2015). "Where legislative intent is discernible a court should give effect to the 'most likely, most reasonable, interpretation of the statute, given its design and purpose.'" Adekale, ¶ 12, 344 P.3d at 765 (quoting Rodriguez v. Casey, 2002 WY 111, ¶ 20, 50 P.3d 323, 329 (Wyo.2002)). In light of this objective, we have said:
We therefore construe each statutory provision in pari materia, giving effect to every word, clause, and sentence according to their arrangement and connection. To ascertain the meaning of a given law, we also consider all statutes relating to the same subject or having the same general purpose and strive to interpret them harmoniously. We presume that the legislature has acted in a thoughtful and rational manner with full knowledge of existing law, and that it intended new statutory provisions to be read in harmony with existing law and as part of an overall and uniform system of jurisprudence. When the words used convey a specific and obvious meaning, we need not go farther and engage in statutory construction.
Nicodemus v. Lampert, 2014 WY 135, ¶ 13, 336 P.3d 671, 674 (Wyo.2014) (citing Estate of Dahlke ex rel. Jubie v. Dahlke, 2014 WY 29, ¶¶ 36-37, 319 P.3d 116, 125-26 (Wyo.2014)).

Robert L. Kroenlein Trust ex rel. Alden v. Kirchhefer, 2015 WY 127, ¶ 22, 357 P.3d 1118, 1126 (Wyo. 2015).

         [¶11] If a statute is unambiguous, meaning "reasonable persons are able to agree on its meaning with consistency and predictability, " we look to the statute's plain language to determine the legislature's intent. Meyer v. Fanning, 2016 WY 6, ¶ 17, 367 P.3d 629, 634 (Wyo. 2016). Even where a statute is unambiguous, however, we may resort to extrinsic aids of interpretation to confirm the meaning the legislature intended for the terms it used. Kroenlein, ΒΆ 27, ...

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