502 U.S. 367 (1992), 90-954, Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail

Docket Nº:No. 90-954
Citation:502 U.S. 367, 112 S.Ct. 748, 116 L.Ed.2d 867, 60 U.S.L.W. 4100
Party Name:Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail
Case Date:January 15, 1992
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 367

502 U.S. 367 (1992)

112 S.Ct. 748, 116 L.Ed.2d 867, 60 U.S.L.W. 4100



Inmates of Suffolk County Jail

No. 90-954

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 15, 1992

Argued Oct. 9, 1991




Years after the District Court held that conditions at the Suffolk County, Massachusetts, jail were constitutionally deficient, petitioner officials and respondent inmates entered into a consent decree providing for construction of a new jail that, among other things, would provide single occupancy cells for pretrial detainees. Work on the jail was delayed and, in the interim, the inmate population outpaced projections. While construction was still underway, petitioner sheriff moved to modify the decree to allow double-bunking in a certain number of cells, thereby raising the jail's capacity. Relying on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) -- which provides, inter alia, that

upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party . . . from a . . . judgment . . . for the following reasons: . . . (5) . . . it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective operation

-- the sheriff argued that modification was required by a change in law, this Court's post-decree decision in Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, and a change in fact, the increase in pretrial detainees. The District Court denied relief, holding that Rule 60(b)(5) codified the standard of United States v. Swift & Co., 286 U.S. 106, 119 --

Nothing less than a clear showing of grievous wrong evoked by a new and unforeseen conditions should lead . . . to [a] change [in] what was decreed after years of litigation with the consent of all concerned

-- and that a case for modification under this standard had not been made. The court also rejected the argument that Bell required modification of the decree; found that the increased pretrial detainee population was "neither new nor unforeseen"; declared that relief would be inappropriate, even under a more flexible modification standard, because separate cells for detainees were "perhaps the most important" element of the relief sought; and held that, even if the sheriff's double-celling proposal met constitutional standards, allowing modification on that basis would undermine and discourage settlement of institutional cases. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

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1. The Swift "grievous wrong" standard does not apply to requests to modify consent decrees stemming from institutional reform litigation. That standard was formulated in the context of facts demonstrating that no genuine changes had occurred requiring modification of the decree in question, see id. at 115-116, and the Swift Court recognized that decrees involving the supervision of changing conduct or conditions may be revised if necessary to adapt to future events, id. at 114-115. Moreover, subsequent decisions have emphasized the need for flexibility to modify a decree if the circumstances, whether of law or fact, have changed or new ones have arisen. Thus, it cannot be concluded that Rule 60(b)(5) misread Swift and intended that decree modifications were in all cases to be governed by the "grievous wrong" standard. A less stringent standard is made all the more important by the recent upsurge in institutional reform litigation, where the extended life of decrees increases the likelihood that significant changes will occur. Furthermore, the experience of federal courts in implementing and modifying such decrees demonstrates that a flexible approach is often essential to achieving the goals of reform litigation, particularly the public's interest in the sound and efficient operations of its institutions. The contention that any rule other than the Swift standard would deter parties to such litigation from negotiating settlements, and hence destroy the utility of consent decrees, is unpersuasive. Obviously that would not be the case with respect to government officials. Moreover, plaintiffs will still wish to settle such cases, since, even if they litigate to conclusion and win, the resulting judgment may give them less than they hoped for, whereas settlement will avoid further litigation, will perhaps obtain more than would have been ordered without the local government's consent, and will eliminate the possibility of losing; and since the prospective effect of a judgment obtained after litigation will still be open to modification where deemed equitable under Rule 60(b). Pp. 378-383.

2. Under the flexible standard adopted today, a party seeking modification of an institutional reform consent decree bears the burden of establishing that a significant change in facts or law warrants revision of the decree, and that the proposed modification is suitably tailored to the changed circumstances. Pp. 383-393.

(a) Modification may be warranted when changed factual conditions make compliance with the decree substantially more onerous, when the decree proves to be unworkable because of unforeseen obstacles, or when enforcement of the decree without modification would be detrimental to the public interest. Where a party relies upon events that actually were anticipated at the time it entered into a decree, modification

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should be granted only if the party satisfies the heavy burden of convincing the court that it agreed to the decree in good faith, made a reasonable effort to comply, and should be relieved of the undertaking under Rule 60(b). Accordingly, on remand, the District Court should consider whether the upsurge in inmate population was foreseen by petitioners. Despite that court's statement that it was, the decree itself and aspects of the record indicate that the increase may have been unanticipated. To relieve petitioners from the promise to provide single cells for pretrial detainees based on the increased jail population does not necessarily violate the decree's basic purpose of providing a remedy for what had been found -- based on a variety of factors, including double-celling -- to be unconstitutional conditions in the old jail. The rule cannot be that modifications of one of a decree's terms defeats its purpose, since modification would then be all but impossible. Thus, the District Court erred in holding that, even under a standard more flexible than Swift's, modification of the single-cell requirement was necessarily forbidden. Pp. 383-387.

(b) A decree must be modified if one or more of the obligations placed upon the parties later becomes impermissible under federal law, and may be modified when the statutory or decisional law has changed to make legal what the decree was designed to prevent. The Bell holding, which made clear that double-celling is not in all cases unconstitutional, was not, in and of itself, a change in law requiring modification of the decree at issue. Since that holding did not cast doubt on the legality of single-celling, the possibility that such a holding would be issued must be viewed as having been immaterial to petitioners when they signed the decree; i.e., they preferred, even in the event of such a holding, to agree to a decree which called for providing single cells in the new jail. To hold that a clarification in the law automatically opens the door for relitigation of the merits of every affected decree would undermine the finality of such agreements, and could serve as a disincentive to settle institutional reform litigation. Nevertheless, a decision that merely clarifies the law could constitute a change supporting modification if the parties had based their agreement on a misunderstanding of the governing law. The decree at issue declares that it "sets forth a program which is both constitutionally adequate and constitutionally required" (emphasis added), and if petitioners can establish on remand that the parties believed that single-celling was constitutionally mandated, this misunderstanding could form a basis for modification. Pp. 387-390.

(c) Once a moving party has established a change in fact or in law warranting modification of a consent decree, the district court should determine whether a proposed modification is suitably tailored to the

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changed circumstances. A modification must not perpetuate or create a constitutional violation. Thus, if respondents are correct that Bell is factually distinguishable and that double-celling at the new jail would violate pretrial detainees' constitutional rights, modification should not be granted. Because a consent decree is a final judgment that may be reopened only to the extent that equity requires, a proposed modification should not strive to rewrite the decree so that it conforms to the constitutional floor, but should merely resolve the problems created by the change. Within these constraints, the public interest and considerations of comity require that the district court defer to local government administrators to resolve the intricacies of implementing a modification. Although financial constraints may not be used to justify constitutional violations, they are a legitimate concern of government defendants in institutional reform litigation, and therefore [112 S.Ct. 754] are appropriately considered in tailoring a modification. Pp. 390-393.

915 F.2d 1557, vacated and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 393. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 399. THOMAS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

In these cases, the District Court denied a motion of the Sheriff of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, to modify a consent

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decree entered to correct...

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