Transportation Law Update: When Is a Toll a Tax - Round Two

06.08.2021

Readers will recall that we previously reported on litigation in Rhode Island concerning tolls aimed at the trucking industry. Following remand from the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, the District Court revisited the case.

Case Summary:

The United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island recently resolved legal and evidentiary questions raised in an effort to narrow the scope of issues before trial, subsequently denying a motion for judgment on the pleadings and holding that the Rhode Island Bridge Replacement, Reconstructions, and Maintenance Fund Act (“RhodeWorks”) was not immune from Commerce Clause scrutiny. American Trucking Associations, Inc. v. Alviti, No. 18-378-WES, 2020 WL 4050237 (D.R.I. 2020).


Background and Procedural History:

In response to the enactment of RhodeWorks in 2016, various companies filed suit and alleged that RhodeWorks violated the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution. After dismissal by the United States District Court for Rhode Island, the federal circuit court reversed and remanded. The District Court resolved three pretrial matters: (1) whether defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings should be granted based on immunity from Commerce Clause scrutiny; (2) whether statements made by Rhode Island officials are admissible; and (3) what legal framework applies to privileges asserted by defendants.

Analysis:

The District Court first addressed whether RhodeWorks was immune from Commerce Clause scrutiny based on the enactment of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (“ISTEA”). Congress does have power to regulate and define interstate commerce by permitting state regulation, and when it chooses, these regulations will become invulnerable to attack under the Commerce Clause. To make this showing, one must prove that this Congressional consent for state action was “expressly stated” or “made unmistakably clear.” Although the ISTEA expressly authorized states to allocate toll revenue for purposes besides maintenance of toll facilities, it does not evince an “unmistakably clear” intent to shield state highway tolling activity from Commerce Clause challenges.

The District Court then turned to evidentiary issues to determine whether statements – both in press reports and those made therein - made by Rhode Island state officials were to be excluded as irrelevant and inadmissible hearsay. In determining the relevance of said statements, courts are adept at considering circumstantial evidence offered as proof of discriminatory purpose, so long as the party offering that proof can show the relationship between the proffered evidence and the challenged statute. Here, the proffered evidence were statements made by officials who were influential in the passage of RhodeWorks. The District Court deemed such statements relevant based on their importance to the issue of discriminatory intent. To evaluate the possibility of inadmissible hearsay within the statements, the District Court looked to both the press reports and statements therein, noting that most of the statements either fell under the exception of an opposing party statement or were not being offered for the truth of the matter asserted. As for the press reports, the offer was excluded because while probative, other avenues were available to obtain the same evidence e.g., testimony of the available state officials. Finally, the District Court subsequently denied defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings due to RhodeWork’s susceptibility to Commerce Clause scrutiny, admitted certain statements therein, and found the federal common law applied to defendants’ asserted privileges. The case appears to be headed to trial. Readers should stand by for other reports on the case.

Contact John F. Fatino for more information about trucking and transportation matters 515-288-6041 or fatino@whitfieldlaw.com. Clark Butler, J.D. Candidate, Drake University Law School assisted in the preparation of these materials.

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