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Thursday, September 19, 2002
No. 01-270 Yellow Transportation, Inc. v. Michigan

This is the first case scheduled to be argued in October, and it is a thriller: Basically, Congress decided to freeze the amount that states are allowed to charge truckers for those little license-plate-type stickers you see on the cabs of trucks. The fees were frozen at the level "collected or charged" by the state as of Nov. 15, 1991. In 1991, Michigan charged $10 for each truck from a state with which it did not have a reciprocity agreement. For the 1992 year, Michigan decided that to determine what state a truck was "from," it would use the principal place of business of the trucking company, rather than the state in which the truck was licensed.

As it happened, Yellow had five vehicles that were not licensed in a state with reciprocity, so before the change, it paid $50. Unfortunately for Yellow, its principal place of business was not in a state with reciprocity, and it had an additional 3,730 vehicles that were no longer exempt under the new rule. The state notified the licensees in September, 1991, and Yellow actually paid its required fees before the November 15 date. Yellow then sued, claiming that the increase violated the freeze Congress had imposed.

The state courts held for Yellow because the Interstate Commerce Commission had previously found it "clear" that the "fee charged or collected as of November 15, 1991" "concerns only fees charged or collected for the 1991 registration year." What a load. As my Civil Procedure Professor once warned, whenever someone says something is "clear," it is a sure sign that what follows is not at all clear. I am all for deference to administrative interpretation, but "as of November 15" simply does not mean "for the 1991 registration year." Michigan both "charged" the fee before the cutoff date by notifying licensees, and actually "collected" the fee as well. I predict the Supreme Court will REVERSE the Michigan Court of Appeals.