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Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe

    Brief Fact Summary. Two statutes enacted by Congress to curb destruction of the country’s natural resources prohibited the Secretary of Transportation (Secretary) from authorizing the use of federal funds to finance the construction of highways through public parks if there was a “feasible and prudent” alternative route. The Secretary approved route I-40 being built through Overton Park, and a group of citizens and conservation groups (Petitioners) contended that the Secretary violated the statutes.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. APA Section:706 required the court to decide: 1] whether the Secretary acted within the scope of his authority; 2] whether the choice made was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law;” and 3] whether the Secretary’s action followed the necessary procedural requirements.

    Facts. I-40, the proposed six-lane highway, was to cut through Overton Park, a 342-acre city park located near Memphis, Tennessee. The path of the road would sever the zoo from the rest of the park. Petitioners contended that the Secretary’s announced approval of the road was invalid because he did not indicate why he believed there were no feasible and prudent alternative routes. In District Court, the Respondents argued that the Secretary did not have to make formal findings, and introduced affidavits specifically prepared for litigation to support the Secretary’s decision. The District Court and the Court of Appeals held that formal findings by the Secretary were not necessary, and refused to probe the mental processes of an administrative decisionmaker. Believing the Secretary’s authority wide and the reviewing courts’ narrow, they held that the affidavits contained no basis for a determination that the Secretary exceeded his authority.

    Issue. Were formal findings required? Was judicial review based solely on affidavits adequate?

    Held. Remanded to the District Court for plenary review of the Secretary’s decision. No, formal findings were not required under APA Section:706. A finding based solely on affidavits prepared for trial was insufficient. The review on remand was to be based on the whole administrative record that was before the Secretary at the time he made his decision. Dissent. None. Concurrence. (Labeled “Separate Opinion”) The Court of Appeals decision was wrong, but the case should go back to the Secretary of Transportation, rather than the District Court, to hold hearings on the topic before making a determination.

    Discussion. This case pointed toward procedural requirements in informal adjudication that are not specified in the APA. The United States Supreme Court was less deferential to agency administrators than the lower courts. Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Ass’n of the US v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. Citation. 463 U.S. 29 (1983)

    Brief Fact Summary. The Department of Transportation (DOT) issued Standard 208 in 1967, requiring the installation of seatbelts in all automobiles. It later revised Standard 208 to require passive restraint systems (that do not depend on any action by the occupant for effectiveness), changed the requirement several times, and then rescinded the passive restraint requirement in 1982. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company and the National Association of Independent Insurers (Petitioners) filed suit in the D.C. Circuit for review of the rescission standard.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The scope of review under the “arbitrary and capricious” standard is narrow, and a court is not to substitute its judgment for that of the agency. Nevertheless, the agency must examine the relevant data and articulate a satisfactory explanation for its action, including a “rational connection between the facts found and the choice made.”

    Facts. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 (Act) directed the Secretary to issue motor vehicle standards that “shall be practicable, shall meet the need for motor vehicle safety, and shall be stated in objective terms.” The Secretary issued Standard 208 in 1967, requiring the installation of seatbelts in all automobiles, and later amended it to require passive restraint systems. After going back and forth for many years, it issued a final rule (Notice 25) rescinding the passive restraint requirement contained in Modified Standard 208. The basis NHTSA offered for its rescission was that it was no longer able to find that passive restraints would produce significant safety benefits, due, not to a change in opinion of the effectiveness in technology, but in plans by the automobile industry. Since manufacturers planned to install automatic safety belts in 99% of new cars, the lifesaving potential of airbags would not be realized. Further, NHTSA concluded that the majority of passive restraints installed by manufacturers could be easily and permanently detached. Petitioners claimed that NHTSA’s basis for the rescission was arbitrary and capricious.

    Issue. Did NHTSA act arbitrarily and capriciously in revoking the Standard 208 requirement that new motor vehicles produced after September, 1982 be equipped with passive restraints to protect the safety of occupants of the vehicle in the event of a collision?

    Held. Yes. The agency failed to present an adequate basis and explanation for rescinding the passive restraint requirement had to either: 1] consider the matter further, or 2] adhere to or amend Standard 208 along with the guidelines its analysis supports. NHTSA gave no consideration at all to modifying the Standard to require that airbag technology be utilized. Standard 208 sought to automatic crash protective by requiring either airbags or automatic seatbelts. There was no suggestion in the rulemaking process that if only one option was feasible, no passive restraint standard should be promulgated. Even if NHTSA’s conclusion that there would be decreased safety benefits because consumers would detach the mechanism was acceptable, it would not justify more than an amendment of Standard 208 to disallow compliance by means of one technology that would not provide effective protection (not both). The agency also failed to articulate a basis for not requiring non-detachable seatbelts under Standard 208. Concurrence (in part) and Dissent (in part). The agency needed to provide an explanation as to why it rescinded the entire standard for airbags and automatic seatbelts. The agency adequately explained its decision to rescind detachable seatbelts, so the arbitrary and capricious standard was satisfied as to that.

    Discussion. The frequent changes in opinion made by NHTSA with respect to passive restraints over the years made its views look very political. The agency’s failure to provide a solid explanation for the rescission of passive restraints made it arbitrary and capricious.


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