Supreme Court Favors Trucking Companies in Port of Los Angeles Rulings

by Jana Ritter - Published: 6/14/2013

In the year-long battle between the American Trucking Assn. and the city of Los Angeles, imposing their clean port program, the US Supreme Court gave two more rulings in favor of the ATA on Thursday. While the high court ruled that trucking companies don't have to affix "How am I driving?" placards to their vehicles or have off-site parking plans to haul goods in and out of the seaport, they sent part of the case back to a lower appellate court for further review.

Truck port

Established in 2008 to curb pollution at the largest port in the country, the Los Angeles Port Clean Truck Program sought to restrict the types of trucks that carried goods to and from the port. As one of the program's main goals was to phase out old trucks, it also demanded trucking companies display placards on trucks that listed a phone number to report environmental or safety concerns and companies violating these rules were subject to criminal penalties.

The trucking association sued to overturn the program, arguing that the city overstepped its authority by imposing criminal penalties if trucking companies violated the program's provisions. In a 9-0 decision, the court not only struck down the placard provision, it abolished another rule that required trucking companies to have off-street parking locations when trucks were not in service.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the opinion for the court, which rejected the Port of L.A.'s argument that it acted like a private party in requiring trucking companies to abide by the so-called concession contracts."The port here has not acted as a private party, contracting in a way that the owner of an ordinary commercial enterprise could mimic," Kagan wrote. "Rather, it has forced terminal operators - and through them, trucking companies - to alter their conduct by implementing a criminal prohibition punishable by time in prison."

The port tried to defend the criminal penalties by arguing that the fines would be levied against terminal operators, not trucking companies. But the court rejected that argument: "Slice it or dice it any which way, the port thus acted with the force of law," Kagan wrote.

Bill Graves, president of the American Trucking Association is obviously pleased with the rulings. "We are gratified that, at the conclusion of many years of litigation, the highest court in the land unanimously agreed with ATA on these rules," he said. "Our position has always been that the port's attempt to regulate drayage operators - in ways that had nothing to do with its efforts to improve air quality at the port - was inconsistent with Congress' command that the trucking industry be shaped by market forces, rather than an incompatible patchwork of state and local regulations."

The Harbor Trucking Assn., a group that represents trucking firms that operate at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, also expressed their relief in this outcome. "We're obviously happy," said Alex Cherin, the group's executive director. "I think it provides some good guidance on the role that port authorities should play."

But not surprisingly, port and city officials had little to say, except that their attorneys were reviewing the ruling to determine how it would affect operations.