FINCH v. PETERSON (September 10, 2010)

In 1978, the Indianapolis Police Department and the United States Department of Justice entered into a consent decree designed to correct racial discrimination in the Department. The long-range goal of the decree was to increase the number of African-Americans to the point where it reflected the racial composition of the workforce in the city. In part, it provided that assignments, transfers, and promotions were to be based on appropriate criteria without regard to race. Now fast forward almost 30 years to 2006. That year, the Department promoted 11 lieutenants to captain. To prepare for the promotions, the Department screened, tested, and ranked each applicant. Instead of promoting the highest-ranked applicants, however, the Department promoted three African-Americans who ranked as low as 26th. Three white applicants, all of whom ranked in the top 10, brought suit pursuant to Title VII, § 1981, and § 1983. Magistrate Judge Lynch (S.D. Ind.) rejected the individual defendants' argument that they were entitled to qualified immunity because their actions were required by the consent decree and denied their motion for judgment on the pleadings. The defendants appeal.

In their opinion, Judges Flaum, Williams, and Sykes affirmed. The Court first confirmed its jurisdiction under the collateral-order doctrine. Even in the absence of a final judgment, a decision denying qualified immunity on an issue of law is immediately appealable. On the merits, the Court recited the familiar two questions raised by a qualified immunity analysis -- was a constitutional right violated and was the right sufficiently well-established to put the defendants on notice. The Court rejected the defendants' only argument that their race-based promotion decisions did not violate the Constitution -- that is, that the consent decree required them. Although it conceded that the consent order had general goals of increasing the number of African-American captains, the Court pointed to the several, very specific provisions of the order requiring race-neutral decisions. Other provisions of the consent decree (e.g., requiring sufficient African-American representation in an applicant pool) were designed to allow the department to reach its general goal without engaging in race-based promotions. The Court also rejected the defendants' only argument with respect to the "sufficiently well-established" prong because it also relied on the premise that the consent order required them to promote the African-Americans.