CITY OF DEER LODGE, ZANE COZBY, TERRY JENNINGS and GERALD BENDER, Plaintiffs and Appellants,
TIM FOX, ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR THE STATE OF MONTANA, and the MONTANA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendants and Appellees.
Submitted on Briefs: March 22, 2017
FROM: District Court of the Third Judicial District, In and
For the County of Powell, Cause No. DV 16-61 Honorable Ray
Dayton, Presiding Judge
Appellants: David C. Dalthorp, Jackson, Murdo & Grant,
PC, Helena, Montana
Appellees: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Patrick
M. Risken, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana
M. SANDEFUR, JUSTICE
The City of Deer Lodge, its mayor, one of its City Council
members, and a private citizen (collectively,
"Plaintiffs") appeal from the Third Judicial
District Court's judgment in favor of the Montana
Department of Justice and its department head, Attorney
General Tim Fox. Plaintiffs assert that the Department failed
to comply with the public notice and participation
requirements of Title 2, chapter 3, MCA, as triggered by its
decision to close the Deer Lodge office of its Title and
Registration Bureau (TRB). The dispositive question on appeal
is whether Plaintiffs' claims are moot.
Due to changed circumstances that preclude this Court from
affording effective relief, we hold that Plaintiffs'
claims are moot. We therefore dismiss the appeal.
Throughout the 1990s, the Deer Lodge TRB office and its staff
of 65 to 70 employees distributed license plates manufactured
at the Montana State Prison; processed and printed title
documents; and issued placards for handicapped parking. Since
2000, the Department has been "modernizing" the
TRB. To that end, the Department has reassigned many of the
Deer Lodge TRB office's functions to other offices within
the Motor Vehicle Division (MVD). The size of the Deer Lodge
TRB office waned along with its responsibilities through
attrition and reallocation of TRB positions to other offices
in the MVD. On June 17, 2016, MVD Administrator Sarah Garcia
met with the 35 remaining employees of the Deer Lodge TRB
office and informed them that the office would be formally
closed and all positions would be relocated to Helena.
Prior to the June 17 meeting, the Department had not formally
announced its intention to close the Deer Lodge TRB office,
nor had it afforded any opportunity for public input.
Plaintiffs filed suit in the District Court, alleging
violations of the public's rights to know and
participate. Plaintiffs ultimately sought an order setting
aside the Department's decision to close the TRB office.
Although their complaint requested a preliminary injunction
to stop the Department from closing the Deer Lodge TRB
office, Plaintiffs also filed a separate motion for a
preliminary injunction. The Department filed a motion to
dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be
granted, pursuant to M. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Following a
telephonic status conference with the District Court, the
parties stipulated to treatment of their respective motions
as cross-motions for summary judgment under M. R. Civ. P. 56.
The District Court entered judgment in favor of the
Department. Plaintiffs timely appealed, but did not move to
stay the District Court's judgment in either the District
Court or this Court. The Department proceeded with its
relocation of TRB functions to its Helena offices. As of the
submission of this appeal, the Department has finished
relocating TRB staff and operations to Helena.
On its face, the present appeal concerns the District
Court's grant of a motion for summary judgment, which we
review de novo. State v. Butte-Silver Bow Cnty.,
2009 MT 414, ¶ 17, 353 Mont. 497, 220 P.3d 1115.
Mootness, however, is a threshold issue that must be resolved
before addressing the underlying dispute. Alexander v.
Bozeman Motors, Inc., 2012 MT 301, ¶ ...