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Lambries v. Saluda County Council

Supreme Court of South Carolina

June 18, 2014

Dennis N. Lambries, Respondent,
v.
Saluda County Council; T. Hardee Horne, Chairman; William " Billie" Pugh, Councilman; Steve Teer, Councilman; Jacob Schumpert, Councilman; and James Frank Daniel, Sr., Councilman; Petitioners

Heard May 7, 2014.

Page 786

Appeal From Saluda County. Appellate Case No. 2012-212790. The Honorable William P. Keesley, Circuit Court Judge.

Christian G. Spradley, of Moore, Taylor & Thomas, P.A., of Saluda, and Katherine Carruth Goode, of Winnsboro, for Petitioners.

Richard R. Gleissner, of Gleissner Law Firm, LLC, of Columbia, for Respondent.

Robert E. Lyon, Jr., John K. DeLoache, and Alexander White Smith, all of Columbia, for Amicus Curiae South Carolina Association of Counties.

Danny C. Crowe, of Crowe LaFave, L.L.C., of Columbia, for Amicus Curiae the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

ACTING JUSTICE JAMES E. MOORE. TOAL, C.J., KITTREDGE and HEARN, JJ., concur. PLEICONES, J., concurring in result only.

OPINION

[409 S.C. 5]

Page 787

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS

JAMES E. MOORE, ACTING JUSTICE:

This Court granted a petition for a writ of certiorari to review Lambries v. Saluda County Council, 398 S.C. 501, 728 S.E.2d 488 (Ct. App. 2012), in which the Court of Appeals held, in a matter of first impression, that Saluda County Council's practice of amending its agenda during regularly scheduled meetings violated S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-80 (2007), the notice provision in South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). We reverse.

I. FACTS

On December 8, 2008, at a regularly scheduled meeting of the Saluda County Council, a motion was made and seconded to amend the posted agenda to take up a resolution. Both the motion and the resolution were voted upon and passed unanimously during the meeting, which was open to the public. The nonbinding resolution pertained to water and sewer services, although that subject was not originally listed on County Council's agenda.

Dennis N. Lambries (" Lambries" ) filed this action in the circuit court against the Saluda County Council and its members (collectively, " County Council" ), alleging County Council's amendment of the agenda without notice and in the absence of exigent circumstances and its passage of a resolution that was not on the posted agenda violated FOIA's notice provision in section 30-4-80. Lambries brought the action as a citizen of Saluda County and noted he was also the Chairman of the Saluda County Water and Sewer Authority.

Lambries sought declaratory and/or injunctive relief. Specifically, Lambries asked the circuit court to declare that all resolutions, acts, ordinances, and statements made by County Council in violation of FOIA were null and void, and he sought injunctive relief to prevent future amendments of an agenda in the absence of " truly exigent circumstances," adopting the language contained in a 1984 South Carolina Attorney General Opinion.[1] Lambries contended the only exception in section 30-4-80 [409 S.C. 6] to the requirement that a public notice include an agenda, date, time, and place of meeting was for emergency meetings.

Lambries ultimately dropped his request that certain acts of County Council be declared void and sought only an interpretation of FOIA's notice provision that would prevent County Council from amending its agenda during regularly scheduled meetings. The circuit court denied Lambries's request for injunctive relief and found that under the clear terms of section 30-4-80, which referred to the publication of an " agenda, if any," an agenda was not even required for regularly scheduled meetings, and FOIA contained no prohibition on the amendment of a published agenda. The circuit court rejected Lambries's argument that a sentence in section 30-4-80 states that an agenda is required, finding it applied only to " called, special, or rescheduled meetings," not to " regularly scheduled meetings."

The circuit court noted the purpose of FOIA is for the activities of government " to be in open session and not behind closed doors." The court found that " the amendment of the agenda was performed in open session and in accordance with Saluda County Council rules of order as codified in their ordinances," and S.C. Code Ann. § 4-9-110 (1986) authorizes counties to establish their own rules and order of business. The circuit court denied Lambries's motion to alter or amend under Rule 59(e), SCRCP, reiterating that it " d[id] not agree with the plaintiff's fundamental position that a county council cannot amend agendas for regularly scheduled meetings without advance notice or exigent circumstances."

Page 788

The Court of Appeals reversed in a split decision, the majority finding (1) an agenda is required for regularly scheduled meetings, and (2) County Council's amendment of an agenda less than twenty-four hours before the meeting violated the " spirit" and " purpose" of FOIA's notice requirement. Lambries v. Saluda County Council, 398 S.C. 501, 728 S.E.2d 488 [409 S.C. 7] (Ct. App. 2012) (2-1 decision). This Court granted County Council's petition for a writ of certiorari. In addition, the Court has accepted briefs in support of County Council from the amici curiae, the Municipal Association of South Carolina and the South Carolina Association of Counties.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

As an initial matter, County Council contends " the Court of Appeals applied the wrong standard of review" when it found it could decide the issue presented in this case " with no particular deference to the circuit court." County Council contends the matter should be reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard, as indicated by the dissent.[2]

" Actions for injunctive relief are equitable in nature." Denman v. City of Columbia, 387 S.C. 131, 140, 691 S.E.2d 465, 470 (2010). " An injunction is a drastic remedy issued by the court in its discretion to prevent irreparable harm suffered by the plaintiff." Id. at 140-41, 691 S.E.2d at 470 (citation omitted).

" An order granting or denying an injunction is reviewed for [an] abuse of discretion." Strategic Res. Co. v. BCS Life Ins. Co., 367 S.C. 540, 544, 627 S.E.2d 687, 689 (2006). " An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court's decision is based upon an error of law or upon factual findings that are without evidentiary support." Fields v. J. Haynes Waters Builders, Inc., 376 S.C. 545, 555, 658 S.E.2d 80, 85-86 (2008) (emphasis added).

" Upon review of an action in equity, this Court may make factual findings based on its own view of the preponderance of the evidence." Scratch Golf Co. v. Dunes W. Residential Golf Props., Inc., 361 S.C. 117, 120-21, 603 S.E.2d 905, 907 (2004). " Determining the proper interpretation of a statute is a question of law, and this Court reviews questions of law de novo." Town of Summerville v. City of N. Charleston, 378 S.C. 107, 110, 662 S.E.2d 40, 41 (2008). " In a case raising a novel issue of law regarding the interpretation of a statute, the [409 S.C. 8] appellate court is free to decide the question with no particular deference to the lower court." Sloan v. S.C. Bd. of Physical Therapy Exam'rs, 370 S.C. 452, 466, 636 S.E.2d 598, 605 (2006). " The appellate court is free to decide the question based on its assessment of which ...


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