The Appellate Group

SUWA v. San Juan County

SUWA v. San Juan County, 2021 UT 6 (Durrant, C.J.)

Civil Procedure

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance brought a claim against the San Juan County Commission under Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act, claiming that its rights had been violated when the Commission met to discuss the federal government’s potential revocation of the Bears Ears National Monument in private. The district court dismissed SUWA’s complaint under Utah Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The Utah Supreme Court reversed, holding:

  • SUWA had standing to bring a claim against the Commission under the Act. The district court mistakenly equated the issue of standing with the merits of SUWA’s claim.
  • Practice point: What is needed to satisfy the standing requirement depends on the stage of the legal proceeding. At the pleading stage, plaintiffs are required only to “claim” or “allege” facts showing a legal injury. But later in the proceeding, a party may be required “show” or “prove” standing under the applicable burden of proof.
  • The district court erred when it granted the Commission’s rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Even under the Commission’s interpretation of the statutory language, the complaint alleges claims sufficient to survive a rule 12(b)(6) motion.
  • Practice Point: While this complaint survives a 12(b)(6) motion, other of SUWA’s claims might not survive a similar motion under rule 8 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. However, for claims arising under the Act, a relaxed “context specific and flexible” pleading standard is at play, as a heightened pleading standard would insulate the government from suit considering the closed nature of the meetings and that plaintiffs here were prevented from knowing what took place.
  • The court declines to interpret the specific language of the Act without the benefit of argument on the developed factual record.

Read the full court opinion