614 F.2d 1358 (5th Cir. 1980), 78-1436, United States v. City of Alexandria

Docket Nº:78-1436.
Citation:614 F.2d 1358
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CITY OF ALEXANDRIA et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:April 10, 1980
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Page 1358

614 F.2d 1358 (5th Cir. 1980)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellant,


CITY OF ALEXANDRIA et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 78-1436.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

April 10, 1980

Page 1359

David L. Rose, Katherine P. Ransel, U. S. Dept. of Justice, Washington, D. C., for plaintiff-appellant.

Haynes L. Harkey, Jr., Charles D. Patten, III, Monroe, La., for City of Monroe.

Dan E. Melichar, Alexandria, La., for City of Pineville.

John L. Avant, Baton Rouge, La., A. Mills McCawley, Asst. Atty. Gen., Shreveport, La., for State of La. and Maxie Cox.

Hubert A. Vondestein, Kenner, La., for City of Kenner.

John Gallagher, City Atty., George C. Dixon, Shreveport, La., for City of Shreveport.

Reginald J. McIntyre, Hammond, La., for City of Hammond.

Howard Gist, City Atty., Samuel H. Craven, Alexandria, La., for City of Alexandria.

Robert C. Cudd, City Atty., Monroe, La., for City of Monroe.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Before THORNBERRY, GOLDBERG and GEE, Circuit Judges.

GOLDBERG, Circuit Judge:

This case and its companion case, United States v. City of Miami, 614 F.2d 1322 (5th Cir. 1980), also decided today, present difficult and troubling questions concerning the interrelationship of "reverse discrimination," affirmative action, and the principles governing consent decrees. Most of the substance of our opinion is contained in City of Miami, and we do not repeat it here. Rather, we refer to and adopt the relevant portions of our City of Miami opinion. This case does present a few wrinkles of its own, which require separate discussion and are addressed fully herein.

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I. Factual Background

In November, 1976, an Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice wrote a letter to the Attorney General of the State of Louisiana, informing him of the results of an investigation by the Department of Justice into the employment practices of municipal and parish fire and police departments in the State of Louisiana. That letter spelled out in detail the racial and sexual composition of the labor force of the municipalities and parishes involved in the study. It stated, inter alia, that the municipalities and parishes involved had a total population which was approximately 27% black and approximately 52% female; that, in the police departments involved, approximately 8% of the employees were black and 12% were female; and that, in the fire departments involved, approximately 2% of the employees were black, and 1% female. 1 The letter further stated that the Justice Department was convinced of the existence of a pattern and practice of discriminatory employment practices in the fire and police departments involved in the study, and invited settlement discussions.

On June 29, 1977, a complaint was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana by the United States of America against a class consisting of numerous Louisiana municipalities and several of their officials, alleging that the defendants "have traditionally pursued and continued to pursue policies and practices which discriminate against blacks and females and which deprive or tend to deprive them of employment opportunities or adversely affect their status as employees because of race or sex," in violation of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17.

Along with the complaint, a partial consent decree 2 was filed, already signed by representatives of the United States government and the municipal defendants. 3 It spelled out in great detail a plan to insure that blacks and women would not be unlawfully discriminated against in the future, and to remedy any disadvantage of blacks and women which may have resulted from past unlawful discrimination. It also stated that it did not constitute an adjudication on the merits and that the defendants denied that any unlawful discrimination had occurred.

After ordering briefing by the Justice Department, the district court filed a Memorandum Opinion on July 22, 1977. It stated that the court was not assured that the terms of the decree were not unlawful, unreasonable, or inequitable, in that it required the defendants to discriminate against qualified whites and males despite the absence of any proof, admission, or judicial finding of past discriminatory conduct. The court, stating that it was following the principles enunciated in United States v. City of Jackson, 519 F.2d 1147 (5th Cir. 1975) and United States v. Allegheny-Ludlum Industries, 517 F.2d 826 (5th Cir. 1975), cert. denied, 425 U.S. 944, 96 S.Ct. 1684, 48 L.Ed.2d 187 (1976), refused to sign the consent decree. 4

We thus face this case in a highly unusual posture: since both the plaintiff and the defendants have agreed to the relief and no other parties have entered the action, no one raises any arguments in support

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of the district court's refusal to sign the proposed decree. 5

II. Standards for Approval of Consent Decrees

As we discuss in City of Miami, supra, at pp. 1330-1331 & 1334-1335, the typical formulation of the standards for approving consent decrees settling litigation can be stated as follows: the trial court must satisfy itself that the consent decree is not unlawful, unreasonable, or inequitable before it can be approved; 6 the appellate court will reverse only if it finds that the trial court has abused its discretion.

As we explain in City of Miami, supra, we can find little content in the "abuse of discretion" standard, and believe that the degree of appellate scrutiny must depend on a variety of factors, such as the familiarity of the trial court with the lawsuit, the stage of the proceeding at which the settlement is approved, and the types of issues involved. At the trial level, the general terms "inequitable" and "unreasonable" do not adequately take into account the various factors other than the terms of the decree itself which must enter the trial court's deliberations.

It can be said without fear of contradiction that, in practice, district courts have generally approved proposed settlements, and appellate courts have only rarely reversed decisions approving settlements. Here, we are faced with the converse of the usual situation. The court below refused to approve the consent decree presented for his approval. We have found only one court of appeals which has applied the abuse of discretion standard to review of a trial court's refusal to approve a settlement. See In re International House of Pancakes Franchise Litigation, 487 F.2d 303, 304 (8th Cir. 1973). 7 This extension by the Eighth

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Circuit to disapprovals of settlements was done in summary fashion, and without analysis. We decline to follow its lead. 8 The public policy in favor of voluntary settlements, 9 which is fostered by a deferential standard of appellate review, is defeated by a standard which would allow trial courts to impose their views of reasonableness, subject only to highly deferential "abuse of discretion" review, on settlements reached by the government agencies responsible for the enforcement of Title VII rights.

In the procedural context of this case, the desirability of careful review at the appellate level is manifest. The trial court had heard no evidence at the time the consent decree was presented for his approval. There is thus no reason to defer to the trial court's greater exposure to and familiarity with the litigants, their strategies, positions and proofs, unlike the typical situation in which settlement negotiations come to fruition later in the pretrial process, represented by Ace Heating & Plumbing Co., Inc. v. Crane, 453 F.2d 30, 34 (3d Cir. 1971).

We do not carry the mistaken notion that heightened review of district court refusals to enter consent decrees will resolve the almost intractable problems in this area. But we do not believe that individual federal judges should have almost unchallengeable power to slow or halt the progress of well-intentioned efforts to eradicate the effects of past discrimination and prevent future discrimination. The extent and velocity of affirmative action is among the most difficult problems facing the judiciary today. Even the Supreme Court has been unable or unwilling to lay down any guidelines concerning the speed with which voluntary affirmative action may proceed. District courts should not have unchallengeable unilateral power to slow its pace.

For these reasons, we will undertake a de novo review of the consent decree which was proposed by the parties. 10 This review must be governed by the principles which we today have decided govern the consideration of consent decrees in this context: that a consent decree proposed by a private defendant and government agency in an employment discrimination case carries with it a presumption of validity that is overcome only if the decree contains provisions which are unreasonable, illegal, unconstitutional, or against public policy. See City of Miami, supra, at pp. 1333-1334.

III. Application of the Standard

Our review of the proposed consent decree reveals no provisions that could be called unreasonable, illegal, unconstitutional or against public policy. To the contrary, the goals established by the decree coincide exactly with those of Title VII to ensure equality of employment opportunities for groups who have been excluded from full participation in the labor market. The proposed decree established long term goals of achieving in all job classifications the same percentages of blacks and women as are present in the workforces in the various affected localities. In the interim, goals...

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