United States: Eleventh Circuit Affirms Dissolution Of Class Action Consent Decree Due To Plaintiffs' Inaction

Last Updated: September 5 2016
Article by Gerald L. Maatman Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  After the City of Jacksonville stopped following a class action consent decree that required it to hire a proportionate number of black and white firefighters, the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of the motion and dissolution of the consent decree on the grounds that the plaintiffs waiting fifteen years to bring their show cause motion.

Following a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of all past, present and future black firefighters in in the City of Jacksonville, Florida ("the City") in 1971, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida entered a consent decree that required the City to hire a proportionate number of black and white firefighters.  The consent decree was modified in 1982 and effective until 1992, when the City unilaterally and without legal authorization stopped following the decree.  Fifteen years later, in 2007, the plaintiffs brought a motion to show cause as to why the City should not be held in contempt for violation of the 1982 consent decree.  The district court denied the plaintiffs' motion on grounds of laches, and dissolved the consent decree.  On appeal, in Coffey, et al. v. Braddy, et al., No. 15-11112 (11th Cir. Aug. 23, 2016), the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's order denying the plaintiffs' motion to show cause and dissolving the consent decree.

This ruling illustrates that if an employer abandons its obligations under a consent decree, legal inaction by plaintiffs over a long period of time could potentially render the consent decree dissolved.

Case Background

In 1982, the district court modified a 1971 consent decree requiring the City of Jacksonville to hire in its fire department "an equal number of blacks and whites until the ratio of black fire fighters to white fire fighters reflects the ratio of black citizens to white citizens in the City of Jacksonville."  Id. at 2.  The City complied for ten years until it unilaterally and without the district court's approval stopped following the decree in 1992.  Id.  In 2007, fifteen years after the City had stopped complying with the consent decree, the plaintiffs brought a motion to show cause as to why the City should not be held in contempt for violation of the 1982 consent decree.

The district court denied the plaintiffs' motion on grounds of laches and dissolved the decree.  Id. at 2-3.  Further, the district court explained that if the plaintiffs had sued in 1992 or the years immediately following, "the City would have had a lot of explaining to do."  Id. at 10.  Citing incomplete memories, the fact that several key City personnel had passed away or moved, the spottiness of the paper trail, ambiguities in the documents that were in the record, and the fact that the City had been operating under a different hiring procedure since 1999, the district court concluded that the "plaintiffs['] waiting until fifteen years later is simply too prejudicial to the City."  Id.

In addition, the district court granted the City's motion to dissolve the consent decree.  Id.  The district court refused to reinstate the consent decree as written because its racial quotas were not constitutional under the modern standard for affirmative action, and because adapting the 1982 decree to the new hiring practices that began in 1999 "could be problematic."  Id.  The district court also cited a different successor lawsuit in support of its decision to decline to modify the consent decree.

The Decision

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's order denying the plaintiffs' motion to show cause and dissolving the consent decree.  In support of its holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in holding that laches barred the plaintiffs' motion, the Eleventh Circuit noted that the plaintiffs' fifteen-year delay in bringing their motion to show cause was not excusable and unduly prejudiced the City's ability to defend itself.   Id. at 11.  The Eleventh Circuit instructed that to assert a successful defense of laches, a defendant must show a delay in asserting a right or claim, that the delay was not excusable, and that there was undue prejudice to the party against whom the claim is asserted.  Id.

The Eleventh Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the plaintiffs' inexcusable delay unduly prejudiced the City's ability to defend itself, because unclear memories and incomplete documents made it impossible to determine whether the City was, in fact, in contempt when it ended compliance in 1992.  The Court opined that due to "undeniable ambiguities in the record, the district court was well within its discretion in holding that the City was unduly prejudiced by the delay because the passage of time has made it impossible to make the required findings to determine whether or not the City was in contempt of the decree."  Id. at 15.  The Court rejected the plaintiffs argument that the City was at fault for failing to maintain records that would show that the terms of the decree had been met, noting that plaintiffs  produced no evidence that the City destroyed the records in bad faith, and that "[u]ltimately, the fact that records were lost or destroyed in the interim fifteen years is more a product of the plaintiffs' delay than of the City's malfeasance."  Id. at 17.

Finally, the Eleventh Circuit held that the district court's dissolving of the consent decree (as opposed to leaving the decree in place or modifying the decree) was not an abuse of discretion.  The Court found that "the district court correctly reasoned that the consent decree as written could not be reinstated, because, as the Supreme Court has explained, '[a] consent decree must of course be modified if, as it later turns out, one or more of the obligations placed upon the parties has become impermissible under federal law.'"  Id. at 20 (quoting Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk Cty. Jail, 502 U.S. 367, 388 (1992)).  Finally, the Court found that it was in the public's interest to allow a currently pending lawsuit regarding the same issue to address the situation.  Id.

Accordingly, because the plaintiffs' fifteen-year delay prejudiced the City's ability to defend itself and because a new lawsuit had taken up the cause of fighting racial discrimination in the City's firefighting department, the Eleventh Circuit held that neither the district court's application of laches nor its dissolution of the 1982 consent decree was an abuse of discretion.  Therefore, the Court affirmed the district court's dissolution of the consent decree.

Implication For Employers

Employers should not view this ruling as a license to abandon their obligations under a consent decree that resolves a workplace class action.  Rather, this ruling serves as a wake-up call to plaintiffs who obtain consent decrees against employers for discriminatory practices, and thereafter sleep on the rights they expended resources to obtain.  Should an employer choose to abandon its duties under a consent decree, and the plaintiffs thereafter fail to address this abandonment for an extended period of time, employers can use this ruling to argue how such inactivity by the allegedly aggrieved plaintiffs nullifies the employer's obligation to abide by the dated consent decree.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Gerald L. Maatman Jr.
 
In association with
Related Topics
 
Related Articles
 
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions