Tuesday, June 4, 2013

ATA v. City of Los Angeles: Ports, Trucks and the Market Participant Exception Take a Tour of the Supreme Court

Back in mid-April I made my first visit to the Supreme Court of the United States, in order to hear oral argument in American Trucking Associations v. City of Los Angeles. I had written an amicus brief in the case, on behalf of a number of national local government associations, and was interested to see how it would go. As one prominent environmental law scholar/practitioner advised me, “There is nothing quite like seeing Justice Scalia sneer at your favorite argument.” 

The case is one of an emerging category of market participant exception cases that implicate environmental law and policy. Here, ATA challenged certain aspects of the Clean Truck Program enacted by the Port of Los Angeles. The program was created to allay neighboring communities’ and environmental groups’ concerns about air pollution generated in and around the port by drayage trucks – usually old 18-wheelers at the end of their useful life that transport shipping containers from marine terminals to local railyards, truck depots, and other nodes in the intermodal transport network, for long-distance hauling. These groups had previously held up expansion of the Port through litigation and political opposition. The Port, making a business decision, decided it would be more efficient to address the air pollution than to keep fighting the communities and enviros.   

The program requires trucking companies to enter into concession agreements—or contracts—with the Port, which impose a number of requirements on trucks that access port facilities. Two requirements made it through the 9th Circuit and landed before SCOTUS: one requires trucking companies to have off-street parking plans for their trucks, the other requires trucks to post a placard including a number to call to report air pollution problems. ATA’s argument is that these requirements are expressly preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (which, in addition to deregulating the airline industry also addresses regulation of the trucking industry). The Port’s argument is that the requirements are not preempted because they do not have “the force and effect of law” required under the preemption provision, in large part because they fit under the market participant exception, a doctrine developed at SCOTUS under dormant Commerce Clause and implied preemption cases but never before applied to express preemption under a federal statute. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying the matter: the Port maintains that it is a landlord, operating a business, and that in order to grow its business it has to impose certain limitations on those who enter and use its property.  

As you might imagine, the case is complicated. What I found most interesting about the oral argument was how straightforward the members of the Court appeared to find it. To those who spoke, the case seemed to boil down to the fact that noncompliance with the concession agreements could result in misdemeanor charges. The misdemeanor charges, however, under the terms of the Tariff that governs the Port, could only be applied to the marine terminal operator who leases space from the Port and who contracts with the trucking company, and not to the trucking company itself. The criminal penalty is not a term of the concession agreement between Port and trucking company. This fact, though, did not seem to sway the judges from their primary concern: Criminal penalties can only be enforced by the government acting as a regulator. Therefore, any concession agreement that in any way involves the threat of criminal sanction cannot be market participation.

I have two concerns about what appears to be the likely result, here. First, I think the emphasis on the criminal penalty mistakes a practical irrelevancy for a matter of theoretical or doctrinal importance. The Port’s attorney told the Court that the Port does not and would not seek criminal sanctions against a marine terminal operator for a trucking company's noncompliance with the concession agreement. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the existence of the criminal penalties is a red herring. State and local governments acting as market participants are always wielding a power different from that available to private firms, and they are always pursuing different purposes. Their contracting processes are likely to be dictated by law, rather than best practices or personal preference. Their profits are not distributed to partners or shareholders. And, of particular relevance here, government contracts are subject to the False Claims Act and its state analogs, which threaten criminal penalties. 

Second, ATA’s lawsuit is a Trojan Horse. In addition to the relatively innocuous provisions at issue in the case, the Port of LA’s Clean Truck Program also includes a mandatory phase-out of old, dirty trucks. Similar phase-outs have been adopted by the Port of Seattle and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. The trucking association has not challenged these programs, but lawsuits directly challenging these important initiatives will almost certainly follow quickly on the heels of a decision limiting the market participant exception defense to statutory preemption. Of course, the Court can craft an opinion that avoids doing serious damage to ports’ ability to claim the exception in other circumstances unrelated to the FAAAA, such as under the Clean Air Act vehicle emissions standards provisions. Here’s hoping the Court writes with that in mind. 

-- Michael Burger

 

 

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