U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit Upholds Prince Lobel Victory for T-Mobile

The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently affirmed a judgment that Prince Lobel obtained on behalf of T-Mobile, after a trial in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island. The trial judge found that the Cranston Zoning Board of Review violated the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (the "TCA") by effectively prohibiting the provision of wireless services in Cranston when it denied T-Mobile a special use permit and variance that the carrier sought in order to construct a 100-foot monopole in a residential area of Cranston.  

The city of Cranston appealed the trial court’s decision, contending that the carrier should not have been allowed to prove it had a significant gap in coverage by relying on its own network design criteria. The city also claimed that T-Mobile should have been required to pursue a state court judicial remedy prior to filing a zoning appeal with the United States District Court.  

First Circuit Decision Provides Latitude for Carriers to Employ Their Own Design Thresholds

The First Circuit’s decision supports the position held by wireless carriers that they are permitted to employ a design threshold set pursuant to a reasonable methodology and based upon the specific characteristics of their own networks. The city of Cranston argued that T-Mobile failed to prove that the zoning decision effectively prohibited wireless services. The city’s argument was based on the fact that T-Mobile relied on the premise that signal levels below their design threshold of -84 dBm constitute a gap in coverage.  According to the city, this premise did not demonstrate that T-Mobile met its burden of proving that the significant gap in coverage existed. In rejecting Cranston’s argument, the First Circuit found "that the record contains no evidence that undercuts that premise, and the premise was reasonable on its face."  

T-Mobile Presented Sufficient Evidence of its Efforts to Locate Alternative Sites

The First Circuit rejected Cranston’s argument that T-Mobile had failed to prove that its proposed site was the only feasible alternative to remedy its coverage gap. In its decision, the First Circuit stated that T-Mobile had demonstrated a systematic search utilizing "technologically reliable criteria and methodologies."  The First Circuit reasoned that T-Mobile had presented sufficient evidence of its efforts to locate alternatives, and that the city could not simply "insist that [T-Mobile] keep searching regardless of prior efforts to find locations or costs and resources spent."

T-Mobile Was Not Required to Pursue a State Court Remedy Before Filing its Appeal Under the Federal Telecommunications Act — Zoning Board Decision Was a "Final Action"

In a matter of first impression in the First Circuit, the city of Cranston argued that because Rhode Island law provides for a limited review of zoning board decisions, T-Mobile was required to pursue a state court appeal before the Zoning Board of Review’s decision could be considered a "final action" within the meaning of the TCA. 

The trial court and the First Circuit agreed with T-Mobile, finding that because the Zoning Board of Review could take no further action, the decision was final and T-Mobile was "not required to seek judicial review [of the board’s decision] under state law."  The First Circuit stated that the city’s reasoning would frustrate the intent and purpose of the TCA to foster the rapid growth and deployment of personal wireless services, promote competition, and allow carriers to obtain prompt resolution of disputes under the TCA.

If you have any questions about this case, or need more information about Prince Lobel’s telecommunications capabilities, please contact Ricardo M. Sousa at rsousa@princelobel.com or 617 456 8123, or Craig M. Tateronis, Chair of Prince Lobel’s Telecommunications Practice Group at 617 456 8021 or ctateronis@princelobel.com.

Click the pdf below to read the full text of the First Circuit decision.