Court Gives T-Mobile New Life in Wilmington Tower Case

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“No one likes bad cell phone reception or slow streaming data on their smartphone,” said Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kent Jordan, “but that does not mean anyone wants a cellular antenna in their neighborhood, which is why there are zoning battles like the one central to this case.”  

T-Mobile Northeast applied to the Zoning Board of Adjustment (“ZBA”) of the City of Wilmington, MA, for permission to erect an antenna in the city.  The ZBA said no. 

So, relying on a provision of federal law that allows a disappointed wireless service provider like T-Mobile to seek review in a district court “within 30 days after” a zoning authority’s “final action,” T-Mobile filed suit.  

The case proceeded for over a year, however, the District Court concluded that it lacked jurisdiction. The Court reasoned that because T-Mobile filed its complaint before the ZBA released a written decision confirming an earlier oral rejection of the zoning application, the claim was “not ripe.” And, since T-Mobile did not supplement its complaint to include the ZBA’s written decision within 30 days of its issuance, the Court also concluded that relation back could not remedy the ripeness defect. The District Court then granted the City’s motion for summary judgment.

According to Court records, the Court first concluded that the initial complaint was irreparably “unripe” because both the TCA and Delaware law require the ZBA to issue a written decision before the agency’s action could be considered final, and T-Mobile had filed its initial complaint too soon. Secondly, the Court said that the supplemental complaint could not fix the ripeness problem because it was filed past the 30-day window for seeking review of the ZBA’s final action. Because the Court reached that determination, it found it unnecessary to conclude whether T-Mobile’s supplemental complaint was entitled to the benefit of the relation-back doctrine under Rule 15(c). 

With T-Mobile’s appeals, they argued that their complaint was not premature or, in the alternative, that its supplemental pleading cured any ripeness problem.  

“We agree that the grant of summary judgment was improper,” Judge Jordan ruled “and will remand the case for further proceedings.”

To view court docs, click here

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January 14, 2019

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