U.S. Supreme Court holds Telecommunications Act does not require reasons for denial of permit in any particular form, but does require they be issued at same time as notice letter

T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell, 13-975 (January 14, 2015).

This is a Telecommunication Act case where the City of Roswell, Georgia denied an application to build a cell tower on residential property but failed to specify the grounds in its denial. The Act requires localities to provide reasons when they deny applications to build cell phone towers and their reasons for a denial must be supported by substantial evidence in the record. Since the City did not specify the grounds in the notice of denial, T-Mobile sued under the Act.

The City Council held a 2-hour-long public hearing on April 12, 2010, to consider T-Mobile’s application. It arranged privately to have the hearing transcribed, and the City subsequently issued detailed minutes summarizing the proceedings. At the hearing there were concerns that the tower would lack aesthetic compatibility, that the technology was outdated and unnecessary, and that the tower would be too tall. T-Mobile responded by reiterating that it had met all of the ordinance’s requirements and by providing testimony from a property appraiser that placement of cell phone towers does not reduce property values. Individual councilmembers made various comments and asked questions regarding the application during the meeting. The motion to deny the petition noted it would be aesthetically incompatible with the natural setting, that it would be too tall, and that its proximity to other homes would adversely affect the neighbors and the resale value of their properties. The motion passed unanimously.  Two days later, the City sent a formal notice of denial.  It did not specify the particular grounds but did note the minutes of the meeting could be obtained from the City clerk, even though they were not approved for 26 days. T-Mobile sued and the trial court granted its motion for summary judgment.  The Eleventh Court of Appeals reversed holding the detailed minutes were sufficient to specify the grounds for denial and provided substantial evidence for support and T-Mobile appealed.

The U.S. Supreme Court first held that cities must provide reasons for any denial under the Act. Otherwise it is impossible to determine if the denial is supported by substantial evidence, which is a legal term of art.  However, the reasons for the denial need not appear in the notice letter. The Act does not specify any particular form for providing notice. The reasons must be provided within a reasonable time, however, since any person aggrieved must seek judicial review within 30 days of the decision. The 26 day delay in issuing the minutes which contain the reasons deprived was insufficient. The reasons for the denial must be conveyed at essentially the same time as the notice of denial.  The Justice Robert’s dissent asserts four days was sufficient to allow for the appeal so would have ruled the City complied with the Act. Justice Thomas’s dissent expresses an opinion the majority was too eager to reach beyond the statutory language and placed additional administrative burdens on the City.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR delivered the opinion of the Court with JUSTICES SCALIA, KENNEDY, BREYER, ALITO, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed a concurring opinion. ROBERTS, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion in which GINSBURG, J., joined, and in which THOMAS, J., joined as to Part I. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion. The docket sheet with attorney information can be found here.