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Waste Management of Texas, Inc v. Greg Abbott

April 11, 2013

WASTE MANAGEMENT OF TEXAS, INC., APPELLANT
v.
GREG ABBOTT, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF TEXAS; COUNTY OF WILLIAMSON; AND KURT E. JOHNSON,
APPELLEES



On Appeal from the 261st District Court Travis County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. D-1-GN-09-004107

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry McCALL Justice

In The Eleventh Court of Appeals

OPINION

Kurt E. Johnson made an open records request to Williamson County for certain waste tickets related to the operation of the Williamson County Landfill. Waste Management of Texas, Inc., the operator of the landfill, brought this suit against Greg Abbott, in his official capacity as Attorney General of the State of Texas, and Williamson County, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief under the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) to prevent the disclosure of information that is contained in the waste tickets. See TEX. GOV'T CODE ANN. §§ 552.001-.353 (West 2012). In its petition, Waste Management alleged that the information constituted a trade secret and that, as such, the information was excepted from disclosure under the TPIA. Johnson intervened in the suit. Following a bench trial, the trial court entered a judgment in which it denied relief to Waste Management and ordered Williamson County to disclose the information in the waste tickets to Johnson. Waste Management appeals from the trial court's judgment. We reverse and render.

Background

Appellee Williamson County owns the Williamson County Landfill. Waste Management operates the Williamson County Landfill under the terms of a Landfill Operation Agreement (LOA) between it and Williamson County. Waste Management negotiates and enters into contracts with parties relating to the disposal of waste in the landfill. Williamson County is not a party to these contracts.

When a customer disposes of waste at the landfill, Waste Management generates a waste ticket. Waste Management refers to the tickets as "waste" tickets. The LOA refers to the tickets as "weigh" tickets, as does the Attorney General in his brief. For consistency purposes, we will refer to the tickets as "waste" tickets throughout this opinion.

The waste tickets generally include, among other information, the name of the customer and the volume of waste, measured in tons, disposed of by the customer at the landfill. Some of the waste tickets also include pricing information. These waste tickets show the rate per ton charged to the particular customer and the disposal fee charged to the customer. Thus, the pricing information in these tickets includes rate and fee information. Waste Management maintains the waste tickets. Pursuant to the terms of the LOA, Williamson County has a right of access to the tickets.

On August 11, 2009, Williamson County received a letter from Appellee Johnson in which he requested "the sequentially-numbered tickets showing the individual loads of solid- waste disposal events at the Williamson County Landfill for the full business day of July 14, 2009." In response, Williamson County requested an open records decision from the Attorney General and provided Waste Management notice of Johnson's request. Waste Management submitted a letter brief and a representative sample of waste tickets to the Attorney General's office. Waste Management argued that some of the information in the waste tickets, including customer names, the volume disposed of by the customer, and the pricing information, constituted trade secrets. Therefore, Waste Management asserted that the information was excepted from disclosure under Section 552.110(a) of the TPIA. Waste Management also argued that disclosing the information would cause it to suffer substantial competitive harm. As such, Waste Management asserted that the information was excepted from disclosure under Section 552.110(b) of the TPIA.

On November 5, 2009, the Attorney General's Office issued an open records decision in this case. See TEX. ATT'Y GEN. OR2009-15816. In the decision, the Attorney General ruled that the customer identity information in the subject waste tickets constituted a trade secret and that, therefore, it was excepted from disclosure under Section 552.110(a). The Attorney General also ruled that Waste Management had not established that the volume information and pricing information in the tickets constituted trade secrets or that disclosure of such information, without also disclosing customer identities, would cause substantial competitive harm to it. Therefore, the Attorney General ruled that Williamson County was required to withhold the customer identifying information but was required to release the other information in the waste tickets.

Waste Management then filed suit challenging the Attorney General's decision. In its petition, Waste Management sought a declaration that the information in the waste tickets was excepted from disclosure under Section 552.110(a) and (b) of the TPIA. Waste Management also sought injunctive relief against Williamson County to prevent it from releasing the information. As stated above, the trial court entered a final judgment in which it denied relief to Waste Management. The trial court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law. The trial court made the following findings of fact:

1. The information at issue is sequentially-numbered tickets showing the individual loads of solid-waste disposal events at the Williamson County landfill for July 14, 2009, as represented in Plaintiff's Exhibit 1.

2. The information at issue is not a trade secret.

3. Release of the information at issue would not cause substantial competitive harm to Plaintiff.

4. The information at issue must be disclosed to the requestor consistent with Attorney General Letter Ruling OR2009-15816.

3

The trial court concluded that Williamson County was required to disclose the information at issue to Johnson in accordance with the Attorney General's letter ruling. Waste Management has filed this appeal from the trial court's judgment.

Issues on Appeal

In two issues, Waste Management asserts that the trial court erred by ordering the disclosure of the pricing and volume information that is contained in the waste tickets. Specifically, Waste Management contends in its first issue that the information is protected from disclosure under Section 552.110(a) because it constitutes a trade secret. In its second issue, Waste Management contends that the information is protected from ...


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