Defendant City of Roswell (“Defendant”) denied a cell tower application submitted by T Mobile, a “personal wireless service provider” under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA). Defendant informed Plaintiff of the rejection by letter, telling Plaintiff it could find the reasons for the denial in the City Council minutes. The TCA provides a 30-day window to appeal; however, the City’s draft minutes were only approved four days before the 30 days ended. Even so, Plaintiff challenged the decision in federal court based upon the TCA’s “in writing” requirement. Plaintiff further alleged that the denial was not supported by substantial evidence. The trial court ruled for 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, writing for the court, found the “in writing” and “substantial evidence” requirements necessitated that reasons for the decision be given, as their absence would make the judicial review much more difficult. The use of “substantial evidence” in the TCA was a “term of art” for 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. The Court rejected Defendants’ claim that this 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 provided need not be elaborate – merely sufficiently clear as to enable judicial review.
In addition, the TCA did not require that the reasons be stated in the decision or in any particular form, as the TCA stated it did not otherwise affect the authority of a local zoning authority. 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 decision’s issuance. By waiting until 26 days after its decision to issue detailed approved minutes, Defendant failed its statutory obligations. Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the Eleventh Circuit.
Justice Alito concurred, adding it would have been sufficient for the City to simply state that the proposal was “aesthetically incompatible with the surrounding area.” He further wrote that Plaintiff was not injured by the City’s delay (he deemed it a harmless error), and that this procedural error can easily be corrected.
Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Thomas, dissented, stating that, while findings or reasons for the decision were required, they need not be issued “essentially contemporaneously” with the decision. This requirement was not in the TCA, noting that Congress has in other legislation, such as the Administrative Procedures Act and elsewhere in the TCA itself, included such a requirement. The dissent also observed that the “sole issue” before the court was the “in writing” requirement, not the timing of the findings. While agreeing that findings were implicitly required by 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. As the Chief Justice wrote:
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… 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 claims that the impact of this case on local governments will be “small,” suggesting that the delay in making the final version of the minutes available may be harmless error.
The case was T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell, 135 S. Ct. 808 (2015).