Wood v Wasco County, No. A161351, addresses how to apply mootness principles to an alleged public records violation.  In 2014, allegedly without giving proper notice under Oregon’s Public Meetings Law, the Wasco County Board of Commissioners voted to give notice of the county’s intent to withdraw from an intergovernmental agreement.  After the Plaintiff sued to have the notice declared void and also for equitable relief to ensure future compliance with the Public Meetings Law, the Board of Commissioners voted to rescind the notice.  According to the Oregon Court of Appeals, that vote mooted the Plaintiff’s suit.

To begin with, the county’s decision to rescind the notice mooted the Plaintiffs’ request to have the notice declared void. However, the Court of Appeals also held that the request for equitable relief was insufficient to save the suit from mootness.  Although the prayer for equitable relief concerned the county’s future compliance with Oregon’s Public Meetings Law, the court held that in the absence of any allegations suggesting that the alleged public meetings violation at issue in this suit was anything more than “an isolated instance,” the Plaintiff’s request for injunctive relief to ensure compliance “depends on hypothetical future events.”   Thus, the request for equitable relief was not itself justiciable and could not prevent the case from being dismissed as moot.

The Court of Appeals then went on to distinguish mootness from standing. The Plaintiff had argued that ORS 192.680(2) meant he could sue even though the county action he was challenging (i.e., the decision to give notice)  had been rescinded.  ORS 192.680(2) provides that “[a]ny person affected by a decision of a governing body of a public body may commence a suit * * *.”  But the Court of Appeals held that ORS 192.680(2) addresses only standing.  The Court of Appeals explained that standing—who can sue—does not determine what controversies can be brought before a court.  In effect, a plaintiff can have standing to sue, but “the case may still become moot if there is no relief that the court could grant that would have an effect on the parties’ rights.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals held that the Plaintiff had not shown that the case fell within the mootness exception for cases that are capable of repetition yet likely to evade review. The Plaintiff had not shown that if the county were to violate the Public Meetings Law again, that future violation would likewise evade review.

For these reasons, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s ruling that the case was moot. However, the Court of Appeals noted that the trial court should have dismissed the case as moot, rather than entering judgment in the defendants’ favor.  Accordingly, the Court of Appeals vacated and remanded with instructions to enter a judgment of dismissal.

The statements and views expressed in this posting are my own and do not reflect those of my law firm, are intended for general informational purposes only, and do not constitute legal advice or legal opinion.