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Flat Creek Transportation, LLC v. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

May 9, 2019

FLAT CREEK TRANSPORTATION, LLC, an Alabama limited liability company, Plaintiff - Appellant,
FEDERAL MOTOR CARRIER SAFETY ADMINISTRATION, KENNY PRICE, in his capacity as Alabama Division Administrator (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration), ELAINE L. CHAO, in her capacity as Secretary of the United States Department of Transportation, Defendants - Appellees, ANTHONY R. FOXX, in his capacity as Secretary of the United States Department of Transportation, Defendant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama No. 1:16-cv-00876-WKW-TFM

          Before TJOFLAT, NEWSOM, and GILMAN, [*] Circuit Judges.


         Flat Creek Transportation sued for declaratory and injunctive relief on the ground that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration had unfairly targeted it for compliance reviews and used an unsound methodology in doing so. The district court determined that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider Flat Creek's claims. We reach the same destination, albeit by a different route. We hold that Flat Creek has failed to establish that it suffered an injury in fact sufficient to confer standing to sue.


         Flat Creek is a commercial trucking company that transports non-hazardous materials-mainly refrigerated food products. Because it operates in interstate commerce, Flat Creek is subject to Department of Transportation regulations. And because its claim in this case arises against the backdrop of that regulatory framework, we begin with an overview. (Warning: Unavoidable Acronyms Ahead.)


         Within the Department of Transportation, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ("FMCSA") investigates carriers and operators to ensure that they are safe to operate on the nation's roadways. FMCSA uses a safety-fitness rating methodology-the Safety Measurement System ("SMS")-to quantify carriers' performance. For example, the SMS pulls data from the Motor Carrier Management Information System ("MCMIS") related to the following metrics: (1) unsafe driving, (2) fatigued driving, (3) driver fitness, (4) controlled-substance and alcohol usage, (5) vehicle maintenance, (6) hazardous-material compliance, and (7) crash history. See 75 Fed. Reg. 18256, 18258 (April 9, 2010). A carrier is given a weighted score in each category, and then ranked against other carriers. A non-passenger carrier like Flat Creek will receive a "High Risk" designation only if it both (1) has "not received an onsite investigation in the previous 18 months" and (2) scores at or above the 90th percentile for two consecutive months in two or more of the MCMIS categories "most closely correlated with crash risk": unsafe driving, fatigued driving, vehicle maintenance, and crash history. See 81 Fed. Reg. 11875-11876 Table 2 (March 7, 2016).

         This "High Risk" designation matters to carriers because FMCSA concentrates its compliance-review resources on high-risk carriers. A compliance review is an in-depth "on-site investigation of the carrier's operations" that examines the carrier's compliance with FMCSA regulations. 49 C.F.R. § 385.3; see generally 49 C.F.R. § 350 et seq. During a compliance review, an investigator will commonly check driver-qualification files, records of duty status (basically, a measure of the number of hours a driver works per 24-hour day), and vehicle-maintenance data. Within 30 days of the review, FMCSA is required to give the carrier written notice that it has received one of three safety ratings: Satisfactory, Conditional, or Unsatisfactory. 49 C.F.R. §§ 385.3, 385.11(a).

         Safety ratings become "final" in slightly different ways. A Satisfactory rating, the highest possible, is final and effective on the date of notice. 49 C.F.R. § 385.11(b). A Conditional or Unsatisfactory rating becomes final after 60 days if it is not upgraded or overturned. Id. § 385.11(c). If a carrier seeks administrative review of an Unsatisfactory or Conditional rating, FMCSA's Chief Safety Officer must issue a written decision, which will constitute final agency action. Id. § 385.15. Alternatively, a carrier can take corrective action to remedy a reported defect and then request an upgrade from FMCSA. Id. § 385.11(f). If a carrier receives a final Unsatisfactory safety rating, it is prohibited from operating. Id. § 385.13(a).

         Naturally, commercial carriers don't particularly want a "High Risk" designation-because it increases their odds of a compliance review, which in turn increases the odds of suffering an Unsatisfactory safety rating. To address carriers' concerns about the accuracy of the data that factor into the MCMIS system and that can prompt a high-risk designation, FMCSA operates DataQs, an online system that permits carriers to contest those data. See FMCSA Notice to Amend a System of Records, 77 Fed. Reg. 42548-02, 42551 (July 19, 2012).


         Flat Creek's managing member is Charles Patterson Sr.; Charles' son, Charles Patterson Jr., formed and operates a separate trucking company, Liberty Express. In July 2016, FMCSA's Alabama Division conducted a compliance review of Liberty. Flat Creek alleges that during Liberty's review, FMCSA agents asked a bunch of questions about Flat Creek. Not long after, Flat Creek says, its regulatory consultant "received surreptitious reports from confidential informant(s) that agents … planned an unannounced on-site compliance investigation at Flat Creek with the intent to falsely charge Flat Creek with multiple regulatory violations sufficient to … forc[e] a cessation of Flat Creek's operations and likely leading to business closure." Br. of Appellant at 8-9.

         Flat Creek further asserts that it received "flawed" scores and misleading crash indicators from the MCMIS data, which FMCSA failed to keep "complete, timely, and accurate" as required by 49 U.S.C. § 31106(a)(3)(F). Flat Creek insists that, contrary to the MCMIS data, the company's industry performance was above average. Because of the allegedly false data, Flat Creek contends that it "has been consistently but illegally targeted and harassed with multiple unwanted interventions by FMCSA agents." Compl. at ¶ 47. It points to three specific events: an allegedly false Notice of Violation on October 6, 2011; another of the same, on August 10, 2012; and an unfavorable compliance-review report on June 15, 2015. And even before those three instances, Flat Creek alleges that it was subject to "an unusually high number of [compliance review] interventions." Id. at ΒΆ 48. ...

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