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

RESPONDENT:City of Roswell, Georgia
LOCATION: Roswell, Georgia

DOCKET NO.: 13-975
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 574 US (2015)
GRANTED: May 05, 2014
ARGUED: Nov 10, 2014
DECIDED: Jan 14, 2015

Ann O’Connell – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States
Jeffrey L. Fisher – for the petitioner
Richard A. Carothers – for the respondent

Facts of the case

Telecommunications service provider T-mobile South, LLC (T-mobile) submitted an application to construct a 108–foot cell tower resembling a man-made tree (monopine) in Roswell, Georgia. The location of the site, though planned inside a vacant lot, would be in an area zoned for single-family residences within a well-established residential neighborhood. Following an outpouring of public opposition to the tower, Roswell’s Planning and Zoning Division recommended that the Mayor and city council, who ultimately approve applications after a public hearing, impose certain conditions before approving the application. Specifically, the Planning and Zoning Division recommended that T-Mobile should relocate the site to another part of the property, erect a fence around the tower, and plant pine trees to shield it from residential owners’ view. At the public hearing, city council members voted to deny the application.

Two days later, Roswell sent T-Mobile a letter notifying the company that the application was denied and referred the company to the minutes of the public hearing. T-Mobile sued Roswell and claimed that the city had not provided substantial evidence that would support a denial of the application. T-Mobile also alleged that, by prohibiting T-Mobile from building the structure, Roswell violated the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA). The district court did not rule on the substantial evidence question and instead held that Roswell had not met the “in writing” component of the TCA, which required the government to state the reason(s) for denying an application. The district court ordered Roswell to grant the permit, and Roswell appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that Roswell had met the “in writing” requirement by issuing a written denial and referring to the minutes of the hearing for the reasoning.


Does a document stating that an application has been denied without providing reasons for the denial comply with the “in writing” requirement of the Telecommunications Act?

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

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 10, 2014 in T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell, Georgia

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 14, 2015 in T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell, Georgia

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Sotomayor has our opinion this morning in case 13-975, T-Mobile South v. the City of Roswell.

Sonia Sotomayor:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Court Of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

T-Mobile South applied to build a new 108 foot tall cell phone tower in the shape of an artificial tree on 2.8 acres of vacant residential property in the City of Roswell, Georgia.

At a public city council hearing, council members expressed their concerns about the proposed tower.

The hearing ended with the council unanimously passing a motion to deny the application.

Two days later, the City’s Planning and Zoning Division informed T-Mobile by letter that the application had been denied and that meeting minutes would be made available.

Detailed minutes were issued 26 days later.

T-Mobile South sued in Federal District Court, which ruled in T-Mobile’s favor and concluded that by failing to issue a written decision that stated the reasons for which the application had been denied,

the city violated a provision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that says that a locality’s denial shall be in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed.

We granted certiorari to resolve a circuit split about whether and in what form localities must provide reasons when they deny applications like T-Mobile’s.

For the reasons stated in our opinion we hold that the Act requires localities to provide or make available their reasons in writing but we also conclude that nothing in the Act requires those reasons to appear specifically in a locality’s written denial letter.

Rather a locality may comply with its statutory reason giving obligation if it provides its reasons in some other written record and in a fashion that is clear enough to enable judicial review.

However, a locality cannot stymie or burden that judicial review by delaying substantially the release of its reasons and must provide in writing reasons at essentially the same time as it communicates its denial.

While the city provided its reasons in writing and did so in the acceptable form of detailed minute meetings it did not provide those reasons essentially contemporaneously with its written denial.

Accordingly, we reversed the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit and remand for further proceedings.

Justice Alito has filed a concurring opinion, the Chief Justice has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Ginsburg joins and in which Justice Thomas joins as to part one.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion.