Academic journal article Federal Communications Law Journal

Communications Law: Annual Review: The Judicial Practice Committee of the FCBA

Academic journal article Federal Communications Law Journal

Communications Law: Annual Review: The Judicial Practice Committee of the FCBA

Article excerpt

TABLE OF CONTENTS  T-MOBILE SOUTH, LLC V. CITY OF ROSWELL, GEORGIA CBS CORPORATION V. FCC SORENSON COMMUNICATIONS V. FCC (SORENSON II) SORENSON COMMUNICATIONS, INC. V. FCC (SORENSON I) SPECTRUM FIVE LLC V. FCC ILLINOIS PUBLIC TELECOMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATION V. FCC 

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

No. 13-975 (U.S. Jan. 14, 2015)

In T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell, (1) the Supreme Court held that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires localities denying a cell-phone tower construction permit to provide or make available their reasons for doing so. The needn't, however, include those reasons in the formal denial letter; rather, "the locality's reasons may appear in some other written record so long as the reasons are sufficiently clear and are provided or made accessible to the applicant essentially contemporaneously with the written denial letter or notice." Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, "[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." (2) In T-Mobile, the Court addressed "whether, and in what form, localities must provide reasons when they deny" such a request. (3)

This case arose from T-Mobile's application to build a new cell-phone tower in a residential area of Roswell, Georgia. (4) To build a cell-phone tower in a residential area, Roswell requires companies to use an "alternative tower structure," meaning "an artificial tree, clock tower, steeple, or light pole," which is "compatible with the natural setting and surrounding structures" and effectively camouflages the tower, as judged by the City Council. (5) In accord with this requirement, T-Mobile proposed to build a 108-foot-tall tower in the form of an artificial tree, termed a "monopine." (6)

Roswell's Planning and Zoning Division considered the application first and, finding it complied with the city's ordinances, recommended its approval. (7) The City Council, the ultimate arbiters of the issue, then scheduled a 2-hour public hearing during which it heard from the Planning and Zoning Division, T-Mobile, and local residents. (8) After each council member shared his thoughts on the tower issue, the Council unanimously rejected the application. (9)

Two days after the hearing, the Planning and Zoning Division issued a brief rejection letter, which provided no explanation of the decision but referred T-Mobile to the formal meeting minutes. (10) The meeting minutes, which contained the Councilmembers' remarks, were not available for another twenty-six days. Three days later, T-Mobile filed suit in federal court, alleging that the city violated the Telecommunications Act of 1996 when denying its application without the support of substantial evidence in the record. (11)

On cross-motions for summary judgment, the District Court held that Roswell, when denying T-Mobile's application, violated the Telecommunications Act, which the court interpreted to require a written notice explaining the reasons for denial in a manner sufficient to evaluate them against the written record. (12) The Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that ""to the extent that the decision must contain grounds or reasons or explanations, it is sufficient if those are contained in a different written document or documents that the applicant is given or has access to." (13)

With the circuits split on whether and in what form a localities must provide its reasons for denial, the Supreme Court granted cert. In an opinion written by Justice Sotomayor, the Court answered the former in the affirmative and crafted a permissive standard for the latter.

First, the Court held that the Telecommunications Act "requires localities to provide reasons when they deny applications to build cell phone towers. …

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