Detroit International Bridge Co. Loses Another Legal Battle

Mich. Not A Gov’t Entity In Bridge Deal, 6th Circ. Says

By Maria Chutchian
Law360

The Sixth Circuit on Tuesday said states can be considered market participants when engaged in contracts with private companies, finding that Michigan did not violate the commerce clause when it refused to open access to closed-off freeway ramps that lead to a cross-border bridge.

In a published opinion, a three-judge panel said the state of Michigan should not be considered a government regulator in its contract with the Detroit International Bridge Co. to improve access to the Ambassador Bridge, which crosses the Detroit River into Windsor, Ontario. Instead, the panel said the two parties function like independent contractors.

The panel upheld a lower court’s ruling that denied a group of truck companies’ request for an injunction forcing the state to open the freeway ramps, which were recently completed but remain closed to traffic.

“Here, the state is participating in the road construction market in order to improve transportation across a privately owned river crossing. It is not protecting local commerce by discriminating against out-of-state or foreign commercial interests, which is the typical reason for striking down state regulation under the dormant Commerce Clause,” the panel said in its opinion.

In 2010, Michigan obtained an order from a state court finding Detroit International to be in violation of the contract, leaving parts of the construction it was obligated to perform unfinished, according to the opinion.

In August, the state court denied the bridge company’s request for a court order instructing the state to open the freeway ramps. Three trucking companies, The Mason and Dixon Lines Inc., Universal Am-Can Ltd. and Mason Dixon Intermodal Inc., then filed suit in Michigan federal court, seeking an injunction that would force the state to open the ramps. The truckers regularly use the bridge for carrying products from the U.S. to Canada.

Leaving the ramps closed is a violation of federal statutory and constitutional law, they argued.

The panel said the district court was right to deny the motion, agreeing with its reasoning that the state’s refusal to open the ramps is not a state action within the meaning of the statute.

An attorney for the trucking companies said he was disappointed with the decision and that the panel wrongly relied on the state court record rather than the record in the federal action, noting that the concept of market participant wasn’t even broached in the federal proceedings.

“We are not the bridge company. We are one of thousands of truckers that go across that bridge and we have rights under the Commerce Clause, rights of preemption under two specific statutes, rights under a private cause of action,” Daniel C. Sullivan of Sullivan Hincks & Conway said.

The trucking companies are represented by Daniel C. Sullivan and John J. Conway of Sullivan Hincks & Conway and John W. Bryant of Dean & Fulkerson.

Detroit International Bridge Co. is represented by Michael A. Nedelman of Nedelman Gloetzner PLLC.

The case is The Mason and Dixon Lines Inc. et al. v. Kirk Steudle et al., case number 11-1183, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.