Wyoming Supreme Court Justices Disagree: An Unusual Circumstance

Wyoming’s Supreme Court Justices seem to agree most of the time.  In fact, in 2016 more than 95% of the Court’s orders and opinions were unanimous.  The most recent disagreement is in Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc. v. The Board of Trustees of Laramie County School District Number One, 2016 WY 113, 2016 WL 6995555 (Wyo. 2016).

This case features a dispute between Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc., doing business as the Tribune-Eagle (“Tribune-Eagle”), and Laramie County School District No. 1 (“School District”) regarding a public records request.  The Tribune-Eagle submitted a request February 11, 2014, to inspect all emails to, among and from school board members since December 1, 2013, regarding school board topics.  This required the School Board to search not only the School District’s computer system, but also the personal email accounts of the school board members, because school board members use their personal email accounts to conduct school board business.  After completing the search the School District informed the Tribune-Eagle that the requested records could be obtained upon the payment of a $110.  The fee was for the clerical staff time and professional personnel time required to process the request.  The Tribune-Eagle refused to pay the fee and filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a ruling that the Wyoming Public Records Act (the “Act”) does not allow a government entity to charge for access to electronic records when the records request is for inspection only and not copying of the records.  The District Court found the fees to be allowable under the Act and also to be reasonable.  The Wyoming Supreme Court affirmed in a 3-2 split decision.

In interpreting the Act (specifically, Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 16-4-202(d)) the majority held that “[w]hether the request for electronic records is framed as a request to inspect or as a request for a copy, if the only way for the custodian to provide the record is to produce a copy of it, the cost of producing that copy is to be borne by the party making the request.”  Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc., 2016 WY 113 at ¶ 14.  Further, “the limitation on the costs charged is that they be the reasonable costs of producing a copy.”  Id. at ¶ 32.

The Tribune-Eagle and the dissenting members of the Court raised several issues in response.  One such issue is the possible “chilling effect” the majority decision will have on public access to government records.  Justice Davis writing for the dissent stated:

Although imposition of a fee for a member of the public to inspect public records is not the same as denying access, imposing a cost for inspection could limit the access the Act was intended to provide.  While I have no reason to question the district’s good faith, and can accept that it only wants to pass on the cost of responding to a request for electronic records, there can be no doubt that such fees could be used to discourage access.

Id. at ¶ 41.  The Tribune-Eagle also argued that allowing “reasonable costs,” beyond actual duplication costs, could lead to a situation where costs for the same type of records request could vary dramatically from one governmental entity to the next due solely to the efficiency of the entity’s employees.  Also, the first party to request information will bear the entire cost of a record request, while subsequent parties requesting that same information will pay only limited duplication costs.  The majority notes these concerns are policy concerns that only the Wyoming Legislature can correct by amending the Act.

Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc. is interesting not only because it showcases a rare instance of disagreement on the Wyoming Supreme Court, but also because it touches on several issues of recent import including: (i) use of personal email for official government business; (ii) restrictions on access to government records, whether intentional or unintentional; and (iii) how laws may need to adapt to a world where records are increasingly being kept in electronic formats.  The full text of the opinion can be found on the Wyoming Supreme Court’s website at http://www.courts.state.wy.us/Supreme/Opinions.

 

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