January 14, 2015

Supreme Court Decides T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell, Georgia

On January 14, 2015, the Supreme Court decided T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell, Georgia, No. 13-975. The Court held that the Telecommunications Act of 1996, 47 U.S.C. §332(c)(7)(B)(iii), requires a locality to provide written reasons when denying applications for siting of cell-phone towers. The reasons need not be elaborate or even sophisticated, but must be clear enough to enable judicial review. And the reasons need not appear in the denial notice itself, but must be stated in some other written document issued at essentially the same time as the denial notice.

T-Mobile applied to build a cell-phone tower in a residential area of Roswell, Georgia. The City's Planning and Zoning Division concluded that the application met the City's ordinances and recommended approval of the application. After a public hearing, the Council voted unanimously to deny the application, with some Council members explaining their reasons at the hearing. The Council sent a denial letter to T-Mobile two days later, saying simply that the application had been denied, and that T-Mobile could obtain the minutes of the Council meeting by contacting a particular City employee. The minutes of the hearing were not approved and published until 26 days later, just days prior to T-Mobile's deadline to seek judicial review of the denial.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires that "[a]ny decision by a State or local government or instrumentality thereof to deny a request to place, construct, or modify personal wireless service facilities shall be in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record." 47 U.S.C. § 332(c)(7)(B)(iii). T-Mobile argued in the district court that the City's denial of the application was not supported by substantial evidence in the record, in part because the City's denial letter did not set out any reasons for its denial of the application, as the statute requires. The district court agreed with T-Mobile, but the Eleventh Circuit reversed. It held that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was satisfied if the reasons for denial of an application were in a written document other than the denial notice that the applicant has or is given access to. The court held that the act was satisfied here because T-Mobile had its own transcript of the hearing as well as a written letter stating that the application had been denied and informing it that it could obtain access to the minutes of the hearing.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires localities to provide reasons when they deny applications to build cell-phone towers. The Court held that that requiring reasons was "not just commonsensical, but flows directly from the act's use of the term 'substantial evidence,'" which is a "'term of art' in administrative law that describes how 'an administrative record is to be judged by a reviewing court.'" The Court further held that the reasons do not have to be in the same writing that conveys the denial of the application, but must be given in a written document essentially contemporaneous with the issuance of the denial. Thus, the City could rely on detailed minutes to provide the required reasons, but the City did not provide those reasons in writing here contemporaneously with the issuance of the denial letter.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Breyer, Alito and Kagan. Justice Alito also filed a concurring opinion. Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Ginsburg and joined in part by Justice Thomas. Justice Thomas also filed a dissenting opinion.

Download Opinion of the Court

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