Federal Shipping Act Preemption and Standing Addressed by Washington Court of Appeals Under State's Open Public Meetings Act
Plaintiff Arthur West filed suit under Washington State’s Open Public Meetings Act, ch. 42.30 RCW (“OPMA”), against the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma for excluding West and the public from a series of meetings held between the two ports in 2014. In West v. Seattle Port Commission, et al., No. 73014-2-I (July 5, 2016), the Washington Court of Appeals held that West had standing to pursue his claims under the OPMA, but also held that the Federal Shipping Act of 1984, 46 U.S.C. §§ 40101-41309, preempted application of the OPMA to the ports’ meetings. The Court therefore affirmed dismissal of West’s claims.
Standing Under the OPMA
In holding that West had standing to bring suit, the Court first emphasized that the standing requirements in the OPMA are very broad, allowing “[a]ny person” to bring an enforcement action for violation of the Act. See RCW 42.30.120, .130. It also rejected application of federal standing requirements in this context, explaining that federal case law on standing does not automatically apply to Washington courts interpreting Washington law. The Court of Appeals concluded that the ports had failed to show that West lacked standing in this case.
Federal Law Conflict Preemption
West’s lawsuit was nevertheless dismissed, because the Court also held that the Federal Shipping Act preempted the OPMA on these facts. The Shipping Act allows ports to work cooperatively in furthering the Act’s purposes, including development of “competitive and efficient ocean transportation.” 46 U.S.C. § 40101. Meeting minutes are required by the Shipping Act’s implementing regulations, but are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. Id. § 40306; 46 C.F.R. § 535.701.
Although the Court of Appeals agreed with West that the Shipping Act did not expressly require closed meetings, the Court found that opening the meetings to the public under the OPMA would frustrate Congress’s purposes and objectives:
Allowing the public, including possible competitors, access to the Ports’ meetings on these matters would make it far more difficult for the Ports to develop competitive approaches. As the Ports argue, open meetings here would “give the Ports’ competitors access to their strategies and would place the Ports at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis marine terminal operators (both here and abroad) who were not subject to similar open public meetings acts.”
Requiring the Ports to open their meetings to the public would frustrate Congress’s intent to have American marine terminal operators be competitive in international maritime commerce. We hold that the Shipping Act preempts this application of the OPMA, because the OPMA would do major damage to the Shipping Act’s objectives.
The Court’s ruling that the OPMA was preempted in this case is limited to meetings held pursuant to the Federal Shipping Act. Port districts and their commissioners remain subject to the requirements of the OPMA in other contexts.