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Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Rancho Palos Verdes

Baker Botts Successful in Arguing California Wireless Communications Zoning Case


WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 23, 2005 -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that plaintiffs may not recover damages and fee awards from localities alleged to have violated a provision of the federal 1996 Telecommunications Act relating to zoning and permitting for wireless communications towers. Baker Botts, led by Jeffrey A. Lamken of the firm’s Washington office, represented the City of Rancho Palos Verdes, California, and argued the case before the Court.

In the late 1990s, the City discovered that a resident had illegally used an amateur radio tower in the backyard of his residence for commercial purposes. The City denied the resident’s belated request to allow commercial operation. After lengthy proceedings in California state and federal courts, the City’s denial was found to have violated a provision of the Telecommunications Act, and the City was ordered to approve the commercial use. The landowner then sought damages and attorney’s fees from the City, arguing that a federal civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, entitled him to such relief for the City’s violation of the Act.

A federal district judge rejected the landowner’s claim for damages and fees under § 1983, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and ordered the lower court to calculate a damages and fee award.

The City retained Baker Botts in April 2004 to seek review of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in the U.S. Supreme Court. The firm filed a petition for a writ of certiorari on the City’s behalf in May 2004, and the Court agreed to take the case. Lamken and his team briefed the case and coordinated the participation of various amici curiae supporting the City’s position, including the United States and several coalitions of concerned states, local governments, and governmental organizations. Lamken – a former Assistant to the Solicitor General, former law clerk to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and head of the Supreme Court and appellate practice for Baker Botts in D.C. – argued the case before the Justices on January 19, 2005.

All nine Justices agreed with the City that damages and fees under § 1983 were not available. Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion for the Court was joined by seven additional Justices and reversed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling. Justices Stephen G. Breyer and John Paul Stevens wrote separate concurring opinions.

“We are delighted with yesterday’s ruling,” said Lamken. “The Telecommunications Act presents many challenges to state and local governments – particularly with respect to the siting and regulation of wireless communications facilities – but it was clear that Congress did not intend to subject them to potentially crippling damages and fee awards when disagreements arise.”

Baker Botts, together with Carol Lynch, Rochelle Brown, and Peter Pierce from Richards, Watson & Gershon of Los Angeles, California., and Joe Van Eaton of the D.C. office of Miller & Van Eaton represented the City.

About Baker Botts L.L.P. Baker Botts L.L.P., founded in 1840, is a leading international law firm with offices in Austin, Baku, Dallas, Houston, London, Moscow, New York, Riyadh and Washington. With approximately 700 lawyers, Baker Botts provides a full spectrum of legal services to regional, national and international clients. For more information, please visit

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