Flow Motion

TALK ABOUT THE WHEELS OF JUSTICE TURNING SLOWLY! Start to finish: nine years, 11 months and 10 days. That's how long it has taken two New York counties and a state-created waste authority to successfully defend — maybe once and for all — laws mandating the delivery of locally generated solid waste to designated publicly owned facilities.

A few days after Ben Crenshaw won his second Masters Tournament title, when gasoline cost $1.25 a gallon and radio stations played “You Are Not Alone” by Michael Jackson, lawyers for several hauling companies and their trade association filed suit against the counties and the authority in federal district court. The plaintiffs claimed that the flow control laws unconstitutionally discriminated against interstate commerce by preventing the haulers from disposing of waste at less costly facilities.

The district court heard oral argument on the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment in October 1995 but made no decision until March 2000, when it agreed with the haulers and struck down the laws.

A federal appeals court overturned the district court ruling. As the three-judge appellate panel saw it, when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed flow control [C&A Carbone Inc. v. Town of Clarkstown, 511 U.S. 363 (1994)], it did so on the basis of favoritism toward local private interests at the expense of out-of-state private interests.

Although the county ordinances benefit public facilities, the appeals court noted, they do not discriminate: Private businesses, no matter where they are located, are treated equally. The appeals court returned the case to the district court for completion of discovery and a hearing on whether the laws imposed burdens on commerce that outweigh local benefits. [United Haulers Association Inc. v. Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Management Auth., 261 F.3d 245 (2d Cir. 2001)] [See “Carbone-anza?” Waste Age, October 2001, p. 99]

On remand and after discovery, each side moved for summary judgment, claiming that no key facts were in dispute. The motions were referred to a federal magistrate for a tentative decision, which would eventually be reviewed by the district judge. The magistrate had been deeply involved in many discovery disputes between the parties and intimately knew the background of the matter.

After evaluating the evidence and the arguments, the magistrate found that the flow control provisions created no different burdens on interstate commerce than on intrastate commerce. Thus, he saw “no need to weigh the non-existent burdens of the legislation against its putative benefits.” He recommended that the district court dismiss the haulers' lawsuit.

The district court agreed with the magistrate judge. “[Without] any evidence that the flow control laws impacted interstate commerce differently than intrastate commerce, there were no detrimental ‘effects’ to weigh against the putative benefits of the legislation,” the court said.

“[States] are notably not prohibited from regulating or even favoring public facilities at the expense of private business,” it added. The court adopted the magistrate's recommendation in its entirety and dismissed the complaint.

[United Haulers Association Inc. v. Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Management Authority, No. 5:95-CV-516 (NAM/DEP), N.D.N.Y., March 24, 2005.]

The legal editor welcomes comments from readers. Contact Barry Shanoff via e-mail: [email protected].

The columnist is a Rockville, Md., attorney and serves as general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.