The following template is for journalists seeking to compel a state entity1 to turn over public records requested under the Wyoming Public Records Act (“WPRA”).2 The template provides a general outline for complaints filed in one of Wyoming’s District Courts, with areas for editing in brackets. Filing a complaint with the court is the last step of the process for seeking public records under WPRA. A journalist seeking public records must take the following steps:
1. Request documents from the agency.
The first step is to ask the agency or entity that possesses the records for the opportunity to inspect or obtain copies of them. An individual’s right to inspect particular records will be governed by the following general principles and procedures.
WPRA governs access to “public records,” which are defined to be “any information in a physical form created, accepted, or obtained by the state or any agency, institution or political subdivision of the state in furtherance of its official function and transaction of public business which is not privileged or confidential by law.”3 The term “public records” “includes any written communication or other information, whether in paper, electronic, or other physical form, received by the state or any agency, institution or political subdivision of the state in furtherance of the transaction of public business . . . whether at a meeting or outside a meeting.”4
All public records,5 unless specifically exempted, are open for inspection by any person during business hours, but each official custodian may promulgate rules and regulations for the inspection as are reasonably necessary for the protection of the records and “the prevention of unnecessary interference with the regular discharge of the duties of the custodian or his office.”6 The Act provides for denial of public records requests where the custodian finds that disclosure would be “contrary to the public interest.”7
WPRA is silent as to the procedure for requesting records. The request need not be formal, and one need not file a written request for access to records. Written requests are only necessary when the requester has been denied access to records.8 The initial request for records should also include a request that, in the event of denial of access to the public records, the custodian issue a written statement of denial pursuant to Wyo. Stat. § 16-4-203(e).9
Upon receipt of the request, the custodian must follow the Wyoming Public Records Act and related decisions.10 If the request is directed to a person who does not have official custody or control, and the records are unavailable for inspection, the person having custody or control must respond within seven (7) business days with notification of unavailability of records, unless good cause is shown for delay. If the applicant is unsatisfied that good cause exists, the applicant may petition the court for a determination as to whether good cause has been demonstrated.11
If the request is directed at the proper custodian, but the records sought “are in active use or in storage, and therefore not available,” the person from whom the records are sought shall notify the applicant of such within seven (7) business days, unless good cause is shown for delay, but the applicant may petition the court for a determination of good cause.12
If the request is directed at the proper custodian and the record is readily available, it shall be released immediately, so long as the release does not impair or impede the normal duties of the custodian’s office.13 The law requires a response within a “reasonable time,”14 but no case has addressed how a reasonable time is to be calculated.
WPRA does not provide for administrative appeals.
2(a). File a complaint in the state district court where the records are located
Any person denied an answer as to the availability of a public record may apply to the court of general jurisdiction having authority over the records themselves for a determination as to whether there is good cause (as alleged by the custodian) for non-availability of the records.15
A person denied access to records may file an action in the state district court where the records are located16 requesting an order directing the custodian of the record to show cause why he should not permit inspection of the record.17 This is the exclusive remedy provided for in the WPRA.
Appeals to the district court can be taken at different times during the course of attempting to gain access to the public records. The model complaint is drafted generally; the specific situation should be addressed by supplemental brief. Under Wyo. R. Civ. P. 3.1, every complaint must be accompanied by a completed civil cover sheet, available here.
2(b). Appear at a district court hearing to consider the custodian’s appeal to the court for an order of non-disclosure
If the custodian feels that substantial injury to the public interest would result from disclosure of the record, he may apply to the district court where the record is located for an order permitting him to restrict disclosure.18 After hearing, the court may issue an order upon a finding that disclosure would cause substantial injury to the public interest.19 The person seeking disclosure has a right to notice of the hearing and to appear and be heard at the hearing to determine whether to not disclose the record.20
1 The Wyoming Public Records Act applies to any “state entity or political subdivision,” except as otherwise provided in the Act or as otherwise provided by law. W.S. § 16-4-202(a). “Political subdivision” is defined as “every county, city and county, city incorporated and unincorporated town, school district and special district within the state.” W.S. § 16-4-201(a)(iv).
2 WPRA is set forth in the Wyoming Statutes (“W.S.”) § 16-4-201 et. seq.
3 W.S. § 16-4-201(a)(v).
4 W.S. § 16-4-201(a)(v).
5 W.S. § 14-6-201(a)(v)
6 W.S. § 16-4-202(a).
7 The Act lists certain exemptions for records that are “contrary to the public interest” for which denials are mandatory, W.S. § 16-4-203(d)(i)-(xvi), and certain exemptions for which denials are discretionary, W.S. § 16-4-203(b)(i)-(vii). The official custodian has a degree of discretion when determining whether to release records that fall within the discretionary exemptions of the Act. The Wyoming Supreme Court has directed the official custodian to apply a balancing test in weighing the public’s right to access against an individual’s privacy interests. The reasons for disclosure must outweigh the state’s public policy of openness. Houghton v. Franscell, 870 P.2d 1050, 1053 (Wyo. 1994).
8 If a party’s oral request is denied, the party denied access may request a written statement of the grounds for denial. The statement must cite the relevant law or regulation under which access is denied. W.S. § 16-4-203(e).
9 W.S. § 16-4-203(e).
10 Wyo.Att’y Gen. Op. No. 98-001 (Jan. 13, 1998).
11 W.S. § 16-4-202(b).
12 W.S. § 16-4-202(c).
14 W.S. § 16-4-202(a).
15 See, infra, n. 6, 7 at 1.
17 W.S. § 16-4-203(f).
18 W.S. § 16-4-203(g).