When Three's a Crowd: Intervention under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 24

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In T-Mobile Northeast LLC v. Town of Barnstable, et. al., the First Circuit affirmed the decision of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts to deny local residents' motion for leave to intervene.

Rule of 24(a) under the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure allows nonparties who have an interest relating to the property or transaction that is the subject of a lawsuit to intervene in the case as a matter of right if the disposition-for all practical purposes-may impair or impede their ability to protect their interest. Alternatively, a nonparty may seek permissive intervention under Rule 24(b) if the would-be intervenor's claim(s) or defense(s) shares a question of law or fact with the principal action. Rule 24 serves as a powerful mechanism for third parties who will suffer the practical consequences of private disputes; however, the desire for third parties to protect their interest must be balanced by the interest of the private disputes in the action. Thus, both Rule 24(a) and (b) place limits on when parties may intervene. In order to intervene as a right, the third party must show that their interest has not been adequately represented by one of the parties in the action; the court will use its discretion to address whether permitting a party to intervene under rule (b) will unduly delay or prejudice the adjudication of the rights of the original parties.

Intervention is the issue at the heart of this case. In 2017, T-Mobile Northeast, LLC ("T-Mobile") obtained a building permit to install an antenna that would be concealed within the steeple of a church in the Centerville section of Barnstable, MA. In 2018, abutters to the church who represented civic group Centerville Concerned Citizens ("CCC") petitioned Barnstable's Building Commissioner to revoke T-Mobile's permit citing zoning restrictions that prohibited the installation of the antenna. The Building Inspector denied the petition, but also issued a stay on the permit. After the town's planning board and zoning board of appeals both denied T-Mobile's request for a variance and special use permit to install the antenna, T-Mobile sought relief in the federal court under the Telecommunication Acts (TCA). It asserted that the TCA limits local land-use regulatory authority over the placement and construction of personal wireless networks and creates a federal cause of action for parties adversely affected by local regulations. Two months after commencing the federal suit, CCC sought to intervene in T-Mobile's federal court action as a right under Rule 24(a), or in the alternative, permissively under Rule 24(b). The district court denied CCC's motion, and the abutters appealed to the First Circuit.

The First Circuit affirmed the lower court's decision to deny the motion as to Rule 24(a), stating that the Town of Barnstable adequately represented the interest of all citizens-including CCC-in the principal action, and CCC did not make a strong affirmative showing that the town did not adequately represent their interest. Further, it held that permissive intervention under Rule 24(b) is a discretionary decision left to the trial judge, and CCC had not shown that the judge abused her discretion by the determination that CCC's addition to the case would not [?] contribute to the Town of Barnstable's defense in a meaningful way.

Rule 24 often finds itself at the center of controversy-especially in cases that have an impact on the public realm. This case serves as a reminder that not every interested party should be included in a private dispute so long as the interests of those parties are adequately represented. 

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