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.

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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.