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Worthington v. WestNET

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

January 22, 2015

John Worthington, Petitioner,
v.
WestNET, Respondent

Argued October 23, 2014

Page 996

Appeal from Kitsap County Superior Court. 11-2-02698-3. Honorable Anna M. Laurie.

John Worthington, pro se.

Tina Robinson, Prosecuting Attorney, and Ione S. George, Deputy ; and Pamela B. Loginsky (of Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys ), for respondent.

Robert W. Ferguson, Attorney General, and Peter B. Gonick, Assistant, on behalf of State of Washington, amicus curiae.

AUTHOR: Justice Charles W. Johnson. WE CONCUR: Justice Susan Owens, Justice Debra L. Stephens, Justice Charles K. Wiggins, Justice Steven C. Gonzá lez, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud. AUTHOR: Justice Mary I. Yu. WE CONCUR: Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen, Justice Mary E. Fairhurst.

OPINION

Page 997

[182 Wn.2d 503] Johnson, J.

¶ 1 This case involves the application of the Public Records Act (PRA), chapter 42.56 RCW, to task forces formed under the Interlocal Cooperation Act (ICA), chapter 39.34 RCW. We accepted review to address whether the West Sound Narcotics Enforcement Team (WestNET), a multijurisdictional drug task force, is an entity subject to the PRA. Because the trial court granted the defendant's CR 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, we reach only a narrower procedural issue: can the parties to an interlocal agreement establish, as a matter of law, that their own task forces do not exist for the purpose of the PRA?

¶ 2 We hold that the ICA does not provide the contributing agencies with such an unqualified power. In concluding that the terms of the agreement alone conclusively established WestNET's capacity for suit, the trial court deprived the plaintiff of an opportunity to present evidence in support of his argument that WestNET's actual operational structure subjects it to the PRA's purview. That approach is inconsistent with our general approach to PRA issues and the ICA itself. RCW 39.34.030(5). Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals and remand for further factual determination proceedings.

Facts

¶ 3 WestNET is a multiagency, multijurisdictional drug task force formed by an " Interlocal Drug Task Force Agreement" (Agreement) executed in June 2009 among several Washington State municipalities and the federal Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS). [1] Resp't's Suppl. Clerk's Papers (Resp't's Suppl. CP) at 125. The Agreement was executed pursuant to chapter 39.34 RCW, a statute that permits various agencies and municipalities to create multijurisdictional task forces in order to coordinate [182 Wn.2d 504] activities and make the most efficient use of their resources. Because the focus of chapter 39.34 RCW is to promote efficiency and coordination, the statute allows the parties to enter into interlocal agreements without necessarily forming a separate legal entity. RCW 39.34.030(4). The Agreement at issue here explicitly provides that because WestNET " does and must operate confidentially and without public input," " [t]he parties do not intend to create through, this Agreement, a separate legal entity subject to suit." Resp't's Suppl. CP at 127.

¶ 4 In 2010, the petitioner, John Worthington, filed a public records request that WestNET disclose records related to a raid of his residence four years earlier, which he alleged was conducted by the WestNET drug task force. WestNET did not respond, and instead, the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office made some initial disclosures. The sheriff's office did not indicate why it responded instead of WestNET--neither explaining that WestNET did not exist as a legal entity or that WestNET was otherwise exempt from the PRA requirements. But Worthington would have been aware that the response came from the sheriff's office, rather than WestNET, because the sheriff's office sent the disclosures on its own letterhead.

¶ 5 Dissatisfied with the response, Worthington sued for relief under the PRA, serving the complaint on the address shared by the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office and the Kitsap County Prosecutor's Office. However, the complaint named WestNET as the only defendant. Per the Agreement, a Kitsap County deputy prosecutor appeared on behalf of WestNET and filed a CR 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, arguing that Worthington failed to identify WestNET as a county or public corporation that may be sued under RCW 4.08.120. [2] The prosecutor later

Page 998

amended that motion, asserting that WestNET was not a government agency subject to the PRA. The trial court denied the CR 12(b)(6) motion.

[182 Wn.2d 505] ¶ 6 WestNET moved for reconsideration, arguing for the first time that WestNET was not an independent legal entity under the terms of the Agreement. Worthington's complaint contended that WestNET was a " 'functional equivalent'" of a government agency and therefore subject to suit under the PRA. Clerk's Papers at 6. The trial court did not review any evidence and only considered the pleadings and the Agreement. [3] Finding that the terms of the Agreement conclusively established how WestNET operates, the trial court concluded that WestNET was not a sufficient " 'something'" to constitute an agency subject to the PRA's requirements. Verbatim Record of Proceedings at 26. The trial court granted WestNET's CR 12(b)(6) motion, dismissing the complaint for failure to state a claim. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and we granted review. Worthington v. WestNET, 179 Wn.App. 788, 320 P.3d 721, review granted, 180 Wn.2d 1021, 328 P.3d 903 (2014).

Analysis

¶ 7 A CR 12(b)(6) motion may be granted only where there is not only an absence of facts set out in the complaint to support a claim of relief, but there is no hypothetical set of facts that could conceivably be raised by the complaint to support a legally sufficient claim. San Juan County v. No New Gas Tax, 160 Wn.2d 141, 164, 157 P.3d 831 (2007). Consideration of extraneous materials on a CR 12(b)(6) motion is permissible so long as the court can say " no matter what facts are proven within the context of the claim, the plaintiffs would not be entitled to relief." Haberman v. Wash. Pub. Power Supply Sys., 109 Wn.2d 107, 121, 744 P.2d 1032, 750 P.2d 254 (1987). Otherwise, the complaint must be transmuted into a motion for summary [182 Wn.2d 506] judgment. CR 56. For the foregoing reasons, CR 12(b)(6) motions are granted only " 'sparingly and with care.'" Orwick v. City of Seattle, 103 Wn.2d 249, 254, 692 P.2d 793 (1984) (quoting 27 Federal Procedure Pleadings and Motions § 62:465 (1984)).

¶ 8 In this case, the appropriateness of the trial court's CR 12(b)(6) dismissal depends on whether the Agreement can conclusively establish that WestNET is a nonentity for PRA purposes, such that no conceivable set of facts could have been raised to support Worthington's claim. " Whether dismissal was appropriate under CR 12(b)(6) is a question of law that we review de novo." San Juan County, 160 Wn.2d at 164 (citing State ex ...


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