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Federal court orders judge to reconsider stance on clean-truck program

March 21, 2009|Louis Sahagun and David Zahniser

A federal appeals court on Friday ordered a judge to reconsider her refusal to block portions of a clean-truck program at the nation's busiest port complex.

In an opinion that dismayed environmentalists and labor leaders, the three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals based in San Francisco ruled that U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder should grant all or part of the American Trucking Assn.'s request for an injunction halting the implementation of new rules that apply to truck drivers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

In the Los Angeles port, the rules prohibit drivers from being independent contractors -- a provision sought by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and backed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In both cities, however, the rules require trucking companies to disclose their financial data and adhere to certain parking requirements.

Trucking industry officials have argued that the program's various provisions impose an unfair economic burden and violate federal law, which prohibits local governments from regulating the price, route or service of motor vehicles.

The appellate judges said the trucking association is likely to prevail in court on at least some of its arguments and should not have to follow the provisions before a final ruling is issued.

"In short, motor carriers should not be required to adhere to the various unconstitutional provisions in the Ports' agreements," the panel said in a 28-page opinion, "and are likely to suffer irrevocably if forced to do that or give up their businesses."

Trucking association officials said they were pleased with the decision.

"The court clearly understood the plight of the motor carriers," said Robert Digges Jr., the association's vice president and chief counsel.

Backers of the clean-truck program pointed out that Friday's ruling does not endanger the ports' efforts to subsidize the purchase of newer, cleaner-burning trucks. It also did not find fault with the fees used to pay for the new trucks, said Villaraigosa spokeswoman Janelle Erickson.

"We're very pleased that the heart of the program is being upheld," she said, "and that dirty trucks are being taken off the road and the air is getting cleaner."

Still, some supporters of the truck program criticized the ruling.

"This decision places in jeopardy the clean-air goals at the ports, as well as every port infrastructure expansion project that relies on clean trucks," said attorney David Pettit of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

For the appellate judges, one concern was the Port of Los Angeles provision that would have placed the burden of owning, operating and maintaining newer, cleaner big rigs -- and hiring drivers to operate them -- on trucking and shipping companies.

The employee provision had been pushed aggressively by the Teamsters and by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. The measure was also backed by Change to Win, a Washington, D.C.-based labor coalition that contributed $500,000 to Villaraigosa's campaign for passage of a telephone users' tax last year.

Harbor officials said the new employee rules would allow them to exert more influence over trucking companies, creating greater safeguards over unsafe, negligent or reckless driving. The appellate panel questioned the rule, however, saying the hiring rules had little to do with vehicle safety.

"It's very clear from the judges' decision that they see the ban on owner-operators as invalid and unconstitutional," said Clayton W. Boyce, a trucking association spokesman.

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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