14 January 2015

Law in Plain English: T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogT-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell

Argument: Nov 10 2014 (Aud.)

Why did the Supreme Court take this case? In this case, the Eleventh Circuit held that the availability of the minutes and a transcript from a hearing were sufficient to meet the "in writing" requirement. On the other hand, the First,
Sixth, and Ninth Circuits have held that a written denial must be separate from the written record and must contain a sufficient explanation of the reasons for the permit denial to allow a reviewing court to evaluate the evidence in the record supporting those reasons. So-called "circuit splits" are perhaps the most common way cases make it to the Supreme Court.

Monopine-style cell tower
Background: The Federal Communications Act (FCA) requires that the denial of a permit for a cell tower be made "in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record." 47 U.S.C. § 332(c)(7)(B)(iii). When the City of Roswell, Georgia, denied a permit to T-Mobile, the letter simply indicated that the permit was denied and referred T-Mobile to the minutes from the hearing at which the Mayor and City Council denied the permit. The district ruled ruled for T-Mobile, finding that the city had violated the FCA by failing to provide a written document delineating the specific reasons for the local government's decision. Relying on their intervening decision in T-Mobile South LLC v. City of Milton, the Eleventh Circuit reversed, finding that the availability of the minutes and a transcript from the hearing were sufficient to meet the "in writing" requirement.

Issue: The question before the Court is whether a document from a state or local government stating that an application has been denied, but providing no reasons whatsoever for the denial, can satisfy the Communications Act’s “in writing” requirement.

Holding: In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 332(c)(7)(B)(iii) requires localities to provide reasons when they deny applications to build cell phone towers. This conclusion follows from the Act’s provisions, which both preserve and specifically limit traditional state and local government authority. It would be considerably difficult for a reviewing court to determine whether a locality’s denial was supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record or whether a locality had unreasonably discriminated among providers of functionally equivalent services or regulated siting on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions if localities were not obligated to state their reasons for denial.
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