Judge rules head tax repeal lawsuit can go forward

Last month the City of Seattle filed a motion asking the court to dismiss one of two lawsuits alleging that the City Council and Mayor violated the Open Public Meetings Act when it repealed the head tax. This morning, the judge in the case denied that motion, allowing both cases to continue forward.

The city’s motion was based on a technical aspect of the lawsuit, arguing that the plaintiff had only named the City of Seattle as a defendant in the case, but the only relief he could ask for is from individual elected officials. But since a court can’t enter an order for relief against someone who isn’t a named party in a case, it should be dismissed.

The plaintiff in turn argued that the Open Public Meetings Act contemplates violations by institutions, not just individuals, and cited Miller vs. City of Tacoma as a Washington Supreme Court precedent finding that a legislative body could be found in violation of the OPMA independent of individual legislators’ liability; in that case, the court made such a finding and awarded the plaintiff attorney’s fees without imposing fines on any individuals. Plaintiff’s attorney argued that they are seeking a finding that there was a “breach of the public trust” by the Council rather than drag all the individual Council members, and their personal attorneys, into court.

The plaintiff also pointed out that the discovery phase of the case was not yet complete — and that the city has been less then forthcoming in producing relevant documents. To that end, there is a pending “motion to compel” to force the city to expedite producing documents. But until discovery is complete, the plaintiff argued, it’s premature to render final decisions on who should, and shouldn’t be a party to the case — implying that the plaintiff might amend the complaint to add other defendants later.

King County Superior Court Judge Timothy Bradshaw agreed with the plaintiffs and denied the city’s motion, reiterating the view that the OPMA is intended to hold institutions accountable and we look at the conduct of those institutions through the conduct of its actors (public officials). He also noted that discovery is not complete, and that nothing required the plaintiffs to “shoot first and ask questions later.”

The next step for the judge is to deal with the plaintiffs’ motion to compel production of documents. The city is due to file its response next week.