In this appeal involving an application by T-Mobile to install a cellular antenna in the City of Wilmington, Delaware, the Third Circuit held that T-Mobile’s untimely supplemental complaint cured its’ initial unripe complaint.

Appellant T-Mobile applied to the Zoning Board of Adjustment of the City of Wilmington, Delaware (the “ZBA”), for permission to erect an antenna in the City. After a hearing, the ZBA denied the request in an oral decision. T-Mobile then filed suit in Federal Court for the District of Delaware, pursuant to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (“TCA”), which permits wireless service providers to seek review in federal court “within 30 days after” a zoning authority’s “final action.” However, the ZBA did not issue its written decision until after T-Mobile filed its complaint in district court. The case proceeded before the district court for over a year, at which point the City moved for summary judgment, claiming that T-Mobile’s complaint was unripe because it was filed prematurely, i.e., before the written decision had been issued. Over a year after the ZBA issued its written decision, T-Mobile filed a motion seeking leave to amend or supplement the initial complaint to note the issuance of the ZBA’s written decision. The Court granted that request, and the City subsequently moved to dismiss the supplemental complaint as untimely. The Court ultimately granted the City’s motion for summary judgment for lack of jurisdiction. The Court first concluded that the initial complaint was unripe because the law requires the ZBA to issue a written decision before their decision was final, and therefore T-Mobile prematurely filed its complaint. Second, the Court determined that the supplemental complaint could not fix the ripeness problem because it was filed past the 30-day window, set by the TCA, for seeking review of the ZBA’s final action. Third, the Court found it unnecessary to address whether T-Mobile’s supplemental complaint was entitled to the benefit of the relation-back doctrine under FRCP 15(c).

T-Mobile appealed to the Third Circuit Court, arguing that the Court had jurisdiction to hear the case. T-Mobile claimed the Complaint was ripe because the ZBA’s oral decision qualifies as a “final action” as required by the federal statute, or in the alternative, that the supplemental complaint relates back to and cures any ripeness problem with its initial complaint. The Third Circuit ultimately reversed the District Court’s decision and remanded for further proceedings. The Court first determined that the ZBA’s oral decision did not constitute a “final action,” because the principles of agency action, the statute’s text, and case law require that a ZBA is required to issue a written decision for its determination to be final.  Therefore, T-Mobile’s Complaint was not ripe since T-Mobile filed it prematurely. However, the Court ultimately concluded that T-Mobile’s untimely supplemental complaint cured the initial complaint. Therefore, the supplemental Complaint was ripe, the District Court had jurisdiction and should not have granted the City’s motion for summary judgment.

Click here to read: T Mobile Northeast LLC v. City of Wilmington, No. 18-1831 (3rd Cir. January 10, 2019).

Edited by:

Mark D. Eastburn