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Salt Lake City Corporation v. Jordan River Restoration Network

Supreme Court of Utah

December 20, 2018

Salt Lake City Corporation, Appellee,
Jordan River Restoration Network, Jeff Salt, State Records Committee, and Salt Lake City Records Appeals Board, Appellants.

          Third Judicial District, Salt Lake City The Honorable Andrew H. Stone Case No. 100910873

         On Direct Appeal

          Margaret D. Plane, Catherine L. Brabson, for appellee Salt Lake City Corporation

          Karthik Nadesan, for appellants Jordan River Restoration Network and Jeff Salt

          Paul H. Tonks, Brent A. Burnett, for appellant State Records Committee

          Justice Petersen authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Durrant, Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, and Justice Pearce joined.



         ¶1 The Jordan River Restoration Network and its founder Jeff Salt (collectively, JRRN) filed a request with Salt Lake City Corporation (City) seeking every document related to the planned construction of a sports complex along the Jordan River. In the request, JRRN also asked the City to provide the documents at no charge. The City granted the document request, but denied JRRN's fee waiver request.

         ¶2 JRRN appealed the City's fee waiver denial to the City Records Appeals Board, which ruled in JRRN's favor. The City appealed that decision to the State Records Committee, which also ruled in favor of JRRN. The City then petitioned for judicial review of these administrative orders in the district court. The court ruled in favor of the City, concluding its fee waiver denial was reasonable.

         ¶3 JRRN challenges a number of the district court's procedural and substantive rulings. We conclude that the court conducted the review contemplated by the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). And while we find that the court did make some procedural errors, each was harmless. Accordingly, we affirm.


         ¶4 JRRN is a coalition of individuals and organizations committed to restoring and preserving the Jordan River and the surrounding area. When JRRN's founder, Jeff Salt, learned of the City's plan to develop a sports complex along the river in Salt Lake County, he was concerned. He ultimately came to oppose the plan altogether.

         ¶5 To obtain information about the project, JRRN filed somewhere between five to twenty GRAMA requests with the City. The City provided "roughly 700 pages of records" to JRRN free of charge. However, JRRN did not find this information to be sufficient and filed an extensive and detailed GRAMA request on March 10, 2010, that effectively sought every document related to the project. This is the request at issue in this case.[1]

         ¶6 In this request, JRRN asked for "all records in the City's possession that related to the Project," including "all agreements related to the Project, all correspondence and meeting information, all site selection analysis, all budgets, and all engineering plans." Some of the records sought had already been provided in response to JRRN's earlier requests.

         ¶7 JRRN also asked the City to waive any fee associated with producing the records. Salt justified the fee waiver request by including on the request form: "nonprofit organization, information for public good and education, not used for profit."

         ¶8 While the City agreed to provide JRRN with the documents it had requested, it denied the fee waiver request. By letter, the City informed JRRN that the estimated cost of providing the requested records would be two hundred dollars, and JRRN would have to pay that amount "before any response to the GRAMA request [could] begin." In the same letter, the City informed JRRN that it could appeal the City's decision to the City Records Appeals Board.[2]

         ¶9 JRRN did so. After a hearing, the City Records Appeals Board agreed with JRRN, and ordered the City to provide the requested records without charge. The Appeals Board also found that the request was "voluminous." The result of this finding was to extend the period of time in which the City was required to fulfill the request from ten business days to forty-five days from the date of the hearing.

         ¶10 Both parties appealed to the State Records Committee. JRRN appealed the Appeals Board's finding that the request was voluminous and the City cross-appealed the determination that JRRN was entitled to a fee waiver. After a hearing, the Records Committee denied the City's cross-appeal.

         ¶11 The City filed a petition for judicial review in the district court of the orders of both the Appeals Board and the Records Committee.[3] After some initial motion practice followed by a significant period of inactivity, the parties eventually exchanged initial disclosures, engaged in fact discovery, and JRRN disclosed an expert witness. Both sides then filed motions for summary judgment.

         ¶12 JRRN argued that the City's petition for judicial review should be dismissed because it lacked standing to appeal the decision of its own City Records Appeals Board and its internal appeals process did not strictly comply with the GRAMA statute. The district court denied JRRN's motion. But the court partially granted the City's motion, entering summary judgment against JRRN on each of its counterclaims. However, the court found that there were "factual issues as to whether the City's decision to deny the fee waiver was reasonable." Accordingly, the court could not grant summary judgment on that claim and informed the parties that it would resolve the issue in a trial de novo.

         ¶13 The City then filed a motion asking the court to determine what the standard of review would be and which party would have the burden of proof at the trial de novo. In a written order, the court ruled that the burden of going forward would be on "Respondents [JRRN] as the party seeking relief in the form of a Court-ordered fee waiver from the City." The court stated that it would review "the City's decision to deny the fee waiver and not the decision or proceedings of the City Appeals Board and State Records Committee." The court further explained: "At this state of review, those proceedings are not relevant. The evidence cannot be limited to the record before the State Records Committee because there is not a record."

         ¶14 After conducting the trial de novo, the district court upheld the City's decision to deny the fee waiver. The court issued detailed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, and ultimately held that "the City was entitled to charge for the costs of [fulfilling the GRAMA Request]."

         ¶15 JRRN then filed this appeal.[4] JRRN asserts that the court should have granted summary judgment against the City because it did not have standing to petition for judicial review, and its internal appeals procedure did not strictly comply with the GRAMA statute. JRRN also argues the court should not have granted summary judgment against it on its counterclaims. With regard to the bench trial, JRRN contends that the court: (1) should have limited its review to the administrative record rather than considering new evidence, (2) applied the wrong standard of review, (3) should have assigned the burden of proof to the City, and 4) misapplied the law.

         ¶16 We have jurisdiction to hear this case pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(j).


         ¶17 JRRN raises a number of legal issues that we review for correctness, without any deference to the holdings of the trial court.

         ¶18 Regarding our review of the district court's ruling against JRRN on summary judgment, "the district court's legal conclusions and ultimate grant or denial of summary judgment are reviewed for correctness." Massey v. Griffiths, 2007 UT 10, ¶ 8, 152 P.3d 312 (citing View Condo. Owners Ass'n v. MSICO, L.L.C., 2005 UT 91, ¶ 17, 127 P.3d 697); see also Graham v. Davis Cty. Solid Waste Mgmt. & Energy Recovery Special Serv. Dist., 1999 UT App 136, ¶ 7, 979 P.2d 363 ("On appeal from a grant of summary judgment, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non moving party and affirm only if there are no disputed issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.").

         ¶19 JRRN's challenge to the district court's conclusion that the City had standing is a mixed question of law and fact. "[W]hen reviewing a lower court's standing determination we have stated that 'the question of whether a given individual or association has standing to request a particular relief is primarily a question of law, although there may be factual findings that bear on the issue.'" Utah Chapter of Sierra Club v. Utah Air Quality Bd., 2006 UT 74, ¶ 13, 148 P.3d 960 (quoting Kearns-Tribune Corp. v. Wilkinson, 946 P.2d 372, 373 (Utah 1997)). We have acknowledged a spectrum of deference for mixed questions, but have ultimately determined that "[l]aw-like mixed questions are reviewed de novo, while fact-like mixed questions are reviewed deferentially." Sawyer v. Dep't of Workforce Servs., 2015 UT 33, ¶¶ 10-11, 345 P.3d 1253. Since this is a mixed question of law and fact that is primarily a question of law, we review the district court's determination for correctness. See id. ¶ 11.

         ¶20 The determination of the appropriate standard of review is a question of law that we review for correctness. See Drake v. Indus. Comm'n of Utah, 939 P.2d 177, 181 (Utah 1997). The district court's allocation of the burden of proof is also a question of law that we review for correctness, Beaver Cty. v. Utah State Tax Comm'n, 916 P.2d 344, 357 (Utah 1996), with "no deference to the district court's legal conclusions." Salt Lake City Corp. v. Jordan River Restoration Network, 2012 UT 84, ¶ 32, 299 P.3d 990 (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         ¶21 We review the district court's application of GRAMA for correctness. State v. Graham, 2006 UT 43, ¶ 16 n.7, 143 P.3d 268.


         ¶22 This case presents questions about the procedural steps the district court took in hearing the case, and whether the court's ultimate decisions on the merits were correct. First, we address the court's summary judgment rulings. We then take up JRRN's challenges to the court's handling of the trial de novo regarding the standard of review, the burden of proof, and the scope of the review. Finally, we assess whether the court correctly applied GRAMA.


         A. Standing

         ¶23 JRRN claims the district court should have granted summary judgment against the City because the City lacked standing to petition for judicial review. JRRN reasons that the City should not have been allowed to appeal the decision of its own City Records Appeals Board, so the City lost standing after that point in the proceedings. Before addressing this argument, it is helpful to review the avenues GRAMA establishes for appealing the denial of a fee waiver request.

         ¶24 GRAMA permits a governmental entity to charge a reasonable fee to recoup the actual cost of providing records in response to a GRAMA request. Utah Code § 63G-2-203(1) (2010). But the statute encourages entities to fulfill a record request without charge when "releasing the record primarily benefits the public rather than a person," among other reasons. Id. § 63G-2-203(4)(a). This statutory language gives a government entity discretion-it encourages but does not mandate an entity to waive its costs when a request benefits the public.

         ¶25 But despite the discretionary nature of this provision, a requester who believes a government entity's fee waiver denial was unreasonable can challenge the denial in the same way a person appeals the denial of a record request. Id. § 63G-2-203(6)(a). First, the requester can appeal the denial to the entity's chief administrative officer. Id. ยง 63G-2-401. If the chief administrative officer denies the request, the requester may appeal the denial ...

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