Wyoming Supreme Court Revives Lawsuit Over Laramie’s Virtual-Only Meetings

The Wyoming Supreme Court on Wednesday revived a Laramie man’s lawsuit claiming the city council violated state public meetings law by holding virtual-only meetings long after COVID orders were lifted.

CM
Clair McFarland

March 01, 20244 min read

Laramie City Hall 2 29 24

The Wyoming Supreme Court on Wednesday resurrected a man’s lawsuit accusing the Laramie City Council of violating state public meetings law by holding virtual-only meetings long after COVID-19 health orders were lifted.

Jerry Peterson filed a petition against the Laramie City Council on Jan. 4, 2023, asking Albany County District Court Judge Misha Westby to find the council violated the state’s public meeting laws by not allowing in-person attendance at meetings and holding them virtual-only for months after the COVID-19 pandemic ended.

Westby dismissed Peterson’s complaint, ruling that he caused harmful delay by waiting until 2023 to file it.  

The Wyoming Supreme Court disagrees, issuing a Wednesday order reversing Westby’s decision and sending the case back to her court.

‘Illegal’ Meetings

The Laramie City Council held virtual-only meetings starting in March 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It continued to do so throughout the 2022 — months after Gov. Mark Gordon declared the pandemic over March 14, 2022.

Peterson’s complaint asked for judgment against the council, accusing it of violating the Wyoming Public Meetings Act.

The act forbids government entities from placing a “condition precedent” on people who want to show up to a public meeting. Peterson alleged that being required to attend via Zoom was a condition precedent.

He also claimed that all city actions taken from Mary 15, 2020, through 2022 were invalid, because they were made at illegal meetings.

Three Years Of Votes

The city asked Westby to dismiss Peterson’s claims as inactionable. It claimed Peterson had delayed filing his case unnecessarily, and that great harms would ensue if the judge invalidated nearly three years’ worth of city actions.

Westby agreed, saying Peterson should have filed his complaint in May 2020, when Gov. Mark Gordon lifted a COVID-19 health order barring gatherings of more than 10 people.

It “needed no further elaboration” that undoing the city’s COVID-era actions would be harmful, Westby added.

Now, Argue

In Wednesday’s opinion by Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Keith Kautz, the high court ruled that Westby came to her conclusion by studying outside materials the city submitted to the court file, which means she should have given Peterson an equal chance to submit outside materials of his own.

Westby dismissed Peterson’s claims. She should have allowed a more-complete review of them in an adversarial process called summary judgment, the high court ruled.

Pandemic Ends

Also, Peterson’s delay was not unnecessary, says Kautz’s order.

Peterson could have filed his complaint in May 2020 when Gordon revoked the restriction on in-person meetings of 10 people or more, but other factors developed after this point.

In January 2021, the city council adopted a resolution prohibiting in-person meetings “based on the mistaken belief that meetings were still restricted to fewer than 10 (people),” the order says.

And well past Gordon’s March 14, 2022, declaration that the COVID-19 pandemic was over, the city continued having virtual-only meetings.

“(The judge’s) determination completely ignores that Mr. Peterson’s claims relate to actions taken at different times by the City Council,” says the high court’s order. “Many of the City Council meetings addressed by the complaint occurred closer in time to January 2023.”

Peterson could not have alleged that a meeting in late 2022 was illegal, by filing suit in 2020, the order adds.

What It Means

The case is reversed and remanded back to the district court for proceedings consistent with the high court’s decision.

That does not grant Peterson an automatic win. He may still have to survive an argument about whether Westby can judge the case early, or he may still have to bear the case through a trial.

Clair McFarland can be reached at clair@cowboystatedaily.com.

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CM

Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter