A Functional View of Reasons: T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell, 574 U.S. ___ (2015)

Here is an interesting Supreme Court of the United States opinion on a statutory requirement to give reasons: T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell, 574 U.S. ___ (2015).

T-Mobile wanted to build a cell-phone tower in Roswell. The City refused to give permission: the elected members of the Council adopted a motion to deny permission. This triggered a provision of federal law requiring that any such decision “shall be in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record”. The same law provides for judicial review of such decisions. Two days after the fatal hearing and decision, city officials wrote to T-Mobile to give the bad news officially. Almost a month elapsed before the city sent T-Mobile a copy of the minutes of the meeting, with details of the concerns expressed by council members.

There were three questions for the Court: did reasons have to be given; did they have to be to a particular standard; and did they have to be given contemporaneously?

Throughout her majority opinion, Sotomayor J.  emphasized the functional nature of reasons. For example, in determining that Roswell indeed had to give reasons, she emphasized the importance of the availability of judicial review of the decision: “In order to determine whether a locality’s denial was supported by substantial evidence, as Congress directed, courts must be able to identify the reason or reasons why the locality denied the application” (slip opinion, p. 6).

This had an impact on her resolution of the second question. Roswell had significant flexibility in determining what form the reasons should take: “Congress imposed no specific requirement on that front, but instead permitted localities to comply with their obligation to give written reasons so long as the locality’s reasons are stated clearly enough to enable judicial review” (slip opinion, p. 9).

Again, the functional approach to reasons caused Sotomayor J. to favour a requirement of more-or-less contemporaneous reasons. Here, the statute permitted an application for judicial review within 30 days of a negative decision. Accordingly: “Because an entity may not be able to make a considered decision whether to seek judicial review without knowing the reasons for the denial of its application, and because a court cannot review the denial without knowing the locality’s reasons, the locality must provide or make available its written reasons at essentially the same time as it communicates its denial” (slip opinion, p. 10).

Otherwise, the affected party would have to guess at a municipality’s reasons for refusing permission. Any judicial review application would be a stab in the dark. Worse, the municipality could subsequently conjure up different or additional reasons to bolster its decision: “The entity would thus be left to guess at what the locality’s written reasons will be, write a complaint that contains those hypotheses, and risk being sandbagged by the written reasons that the locality subsequently provides in litigation after the challenging entity has shown its cards” (slip opinion, p. 10, fn. 3).

The majority’s response to the third question drew a spirited dissent from Roberts C.J.:

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 in cases addressing Section 332(c)(7), 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 with these particular types of proceedings—would have any trouble consulting its interests and deciding whether to seek review before it had received a written explanation from the town.

Colourful stuff, but even sophisticated participants in court and administrative proceedings might be taken by surprise by reasons given for decision. An unkind observer might even describe Roberts C.J.’s opinion in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius as an example!

The majority’s view of a reason-giving requirement is purely functional, but although it is limited to a particular statutory context it recalls views recently expressed by Canadian courts on the role of reasons in facilitating judicial review.

This content has been updated on January 27, 2015 at 15:01.