• An Administrative Agency Has the Authority to Commence Litigation to Enforce Regulations, Even in the Absence of an Express Legislative Delegation, Where such Authority is Necessary for the Agency to Perform Its Delegated Functions
  • May 5, 2003 | Author: John J. Hare
  • Law Firm: Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin - Philadelphia Office
  • In Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation v. Beam, 788 A.2d 357 (Pa. 2002), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered the question of "whether the Department of Transportation may seek to enjoin the operation of an unlicensed airport where this is not specifically authorized by the controlling statute." Id. at 358.

    In Beam, the defendant/appellee Troy Beam ("Beam") used a portion of his property as a runway for his private airplane. In 1999, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (the "Department") filed a complaint in equity and petition for a preliminary injunction, alleging that Beam was operating an airport without a license in violation of Section 471.3 of Title 67 of the Pennsylvania Code, 67 Pa. Code § 471.3. This section provides for the licensing of airports, and it states in relevant part that "no person may establish, maintain or operate an airport, nor conduct flight operations at an airport, unless authorized to do so by the Bureau [of Aviation, a division of the Department]." 67 Pa. Code § 471.3.

    Section 471.2 of the same title defines "airport" as:

    An area of land or water which is used, or intended to be used[,] for the landing and takeoff of aircraft and appurtenant areas which are used, or intended to be used, for airport buildings or air navigation facilities or rights-of-way, together with airport buildings and facilities thereon. The term includes heliports and public airports.

    67 Pa. Code § 471.2.

    Beam answered the Department's complaint by denying that he maintained or operated an airport and further asserting that the Department lacked the authority to seek an injunction against him.

    The trial court denied the request for a preliminary injunction on the basis that, while the Department had authority to license airports, it lacked authority to commence litigation to enforce compliance with its regulations. The Commonwealth Court affirmed on the basis that there exists no statute or regulation conferring authority on the Department to commence a civil action. In so ruling, the Commonwealth Court relied on the principle that an agency charged with the administration of a statute can act only within the strict confines of that statute, and therefore can seek to enforce compliance only with specific legislative authorization. See, Commonwealth, Dep't of Transp. v. Beam, 756 A.2d 1179 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2000). The Supreme Court granted an appeal and reversed.

    The court began by recognizing that, as the lower courts had found, administrative agencies can act only when authorized by legislative language that is clear and unmistakable. Beam, 788 A.2d at 359 (citations omitted), citing United Artists' Theater Circuit, Inc. v. City of Phila., 535 Pa. 370, 389, 635 A.2d 612, 622 (1993). Nonetheless, the court stated, "The rule requiring express legislative delegation is tempered by the recognition that an administrative agency is invested with the implied authority necessary to the effectuation of its express mandates." Id. at 360, citing Commonwealth, Dep't of Envtl. Resources v. Butler County Mushroom Farm, 454 A.2d 1, 4 (Pa. 1982); Pennsylvania Human Relations Com. v. St. Joe Minerals Corp., Zinc Smelting Div., 382 A.2d 731, 736 (Pa. 1978); and 2 AM. JUR. 2D ADMINISTRATIVE LAW § 62 (1994) (explaining that "the reason for implied powers is that, as a practical matter, the legislature cannot foresee all the problems incidental to carrying out the duties and responsibilities of the agency").

    Turning to the relevant statutes, the court found that the Aviation Code authorized the Department to examine, rate and license pilots, 74 Pa.C.S. § 5301(b)(1), to revoke licenses for violation of an aviation law or regulation, 74 Pa.C.S. § 5301(e)(2), and to establish fees for aviation-related services, 74 Pa.C.S. § 6103(a)(3). While these provisions contain no express grant of authority to commence litigation, the court concluded, they nonetheless suggest that the Legislature intended to confer some enforcement authority upon the Department. Id. at 361. Moreover, as to the Department's ability to commence litigation, the court held:

    [W]hen the legislature statutorily invests an agency with certain functions, duties and responsibilities, the agency has a legislatively conferred interest in such matters. From this it must follow that, unless the legislature has provided otherwise, such an agency has an implicit power to be a litigant in matters touching upon its concerns. In such circumstances the legislature has implicitly ordained that such agency is a proper party litigant, i.e., that it has "standing."


    Therefore, aside from the fact that enforcement authority is implicit in the statutory language, the Department specifically retains the power to commence litigation in matters falling within its purview. The court also credited the Department's argument that a continuing violation of the legislatively authorized proscription against unlicensed airports is injurious to the public interest and is therefore enjoinable by the proper authorities.

    As a result, the court held that "the General Assembly has implicitly conferred upon the Department the capacity to seek redress in a judicial forum to restrain operation of an unlicensed airport." Id.

    As this holding suggests, the fact that an administrative agency's enabling legislation does not expressly confer authority to do an act, such authority will be implied if it is necessary for the agency to fulfill its mandate. With specific regard to commencing litigation, such authority will be implied if the focus of the litigation is a matter falling within the agency's statutory concern.