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City of Deer Lodge v. Fox

Supreme Court of Montana

May 30, 2017

CITY OF DEER LODGE, ZANE COZBY, TERRY JENNINGS and GERALD BENDER, Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.
TIM FOX, ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR THE STATE OF MONTANA, and the MONTANA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendants and Appellees.

          Submitted on Briefs: March 22, 2017

         APPEAL 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

          For Appellants: David C. Dalthorp, Jackson, Murdo & Grant, PC, Helena, Montana

          For Appellees: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Patrick M. Risken, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana

          OPINION

          DIRK M. SANDEFUR, JUSTICE

         ¶1 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.

         ¶2 Due to changed circumstances that preclude this Court from affording effective relief, we hold that Plaintiffs' claims are moot. We therefore dismiss the appeal.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶3 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.

         ¶4 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.

         ¶5 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.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶6 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, ΒΆ ...


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