Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 18, 2015

US Supreme Court Gives Life to the “In Writing” Requirement of the TCA

T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell (United States Supreme Court, January 14, 2015), was a case brought by a “personal wireless service provider” under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA) which, among other things, supported rapid deployment of personal communications devices (e.g., cell phones) by requiring that land use decisions on matters relating to such things as cell towers be “in writing” and supported by substantial evidence from a written record.

In this case defendant City denied plaintiff’s cell tower application by letter, informing plaintiff that it could find the reasons for the denial in the City Council minutes. There was a 30-day appeal period under the TCA; however, the City’s draft minutes were not approved until four days before the appeal period ran. Nevertheless, plaintiff challenged the denial in federal court on the “in writing” requirement and also alleged the denial was not supported by substantial evidence. The trial court found for the plaintiff but the Eleventh Circuit, following a majority of circuits, found the letter and reference to the minutes to be sufficient. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Justice Sotomayor wrote for the court and interpreted the “in writing” and “substantial evidence” requirements to require reasons to be given for judicial review purposes. Not requiring reasons would make the judicial task much more difficult. The use of “substantial evidence” in the TCA was a “term of art,” describing how an administrative record was to be reviewed by a court under the TCA. The court inferred that Congress required findings to be derived from the administrative process, rejecting the City’s contention that this requirement would deprive it of its local zoning authority, finding that Congress meant to interfere with local zoning processes to this extent, but stressing that the reasons need not be elaborate – just sufficiently clear to enable judicial review.

Moreover, the court determined that the TCA did not require that the reasons be found in the decision or be in any particular form, as the TCA stated it did not otherwise affect the authority of a local zoning authority noting that FCC rules allowed 90 or 150 days for local governments to make decisions on complete applications. While it may be a plausible interpretation of the TCA for the reasons to be in the decision, the Act did not specifically require this to occur and the court would not infer it. However, the court did require that the reasons be given either in the decision or essentially contemporaneous with the same. By waiting until 26 days after its decision to issue detailed approved minutes, the City failed its statutory obligations and the decision of the Eleventh Circuit was reversed.

Justice Alito concurred, adding that it would be sufficient for the City to state simply that the proposal was “esthetically incompatible with the surrounding area,” that plaintiff was not injured by the City’s delay in providing the final version of the minutes (which he viewed as harmless error) and that this procedural error can easily be corrected.

Chief Justice Roberts authored a dissent, in which Justices Ginsburg and Thomas joined, stating that, while findings or reasons for the decision were required, they need not be issued “essentially contemporaneously” with the decision, as such a requirement was not in the TCA, noting that Congress has in other legislation, such as the Administrative Procedures Act and other sections of the TCA itself, made such a specific requirement. Moreover, the dissent observed that the “sole issue” before the court was the “in writing” requirement and not the timing of the findings, an issue not raised below. While agreeing that findings were implicitly required by the use of the “substantial evidence” standard, if they were not given or are inadequate, remand would be justified, rejecting the contention that plaintiff needed to see the reasons in order to decide whether to appeal:

** * This concern might have force if towns routinely made these decisions in secret, closed-door proceedings, or if applicants were unsophisticated actors. But the local zoning board or town council is not the Star Chamber, and a telecommunications company is no babe in the legal woods. Almost invariably in cases addressing [land use decisions under the TCA], the relevant local authority has held an open meeting at which the applicant was present and the issues publicly aired. In this case and others, T-Mobile has brought its own court reporter, ensuring that it has a verbatim transcript of the meeting well before the town is likely to finalize its minutes. I strongly doubt that a sophisticated, well-lawyered company like T-Mobile – with extensive experience in these particular types of proceedings – would have any trouble consulting its interests and deciding whether to seed review before it had received a written explanation from the town. * * *

Finally, the dissent suggests that impacts of this case on local governments will be “small” – they need only hold back the final decision until the minutes be transcribed or reasons given — also suggesting that the delay in making the final version of the minutes available may be harmless error.

It appears the entire court would conclude that the TCA requires reasons for a land use decision involving cell towers; however the justices disagree on the required timing of those reasons. This result may come as a surprise for some local governments.

T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell, 2015 WL 159278 (1/14/2015)

The opinion can be accessed at: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/13-975_8n6a.pdf


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