769 F.2d 408 (7th Cir. 1985), 84-2858, Smith v. City of Chicago

Docket Nº:84-2858.
Citation:769 F.2d 408
Party Name:Harold SMITH, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CITY OF CHICAGO, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:July 29, 1985
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

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769 F.2d 408 (7th Cir. 1985)

Harold SMITH, Plaintiff-Appellant,


CITY OF CHICAGO, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 84-2858.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 29, 1985

Argued June 18, 1985.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Stephen J. Senderowitz, Troelstrup, Dolkart, Patterson & Senderowitz, Chicago, Ill., for plaintiff-appellant.

James D. Montgomery, Corp. Counsel, Chicago, Ill., for defendants-appellees.

Before CUMMINGS, Chief Judge, and BAUER and EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judges.

EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judge.

Demoted from bricklayer to laborer in November 1982, discharged as a laborer in June 1984 because of a reduction in force, Harold Smith sought judicial relief in August 1984. Smith's petition contended that the demotion came in retaliation for his support of a candidate for Mayor and so violated the Shakman consent decree. The Shakman decree, entered in 1972 and modified several times since, controls the use of political patronage in the City's employment practices. See Tomczak v. City of Chicago, 765 F.2d 633 (7th Cir.1985), which describes the history and scope of the decree.

Smith contends that but for the demotion in 1982 he would not have been let go in 1984. (Smith does not contend that his discharge is an independent violation of the decree.) The district court concluded that Smith had waited too long to seek relief. Twenty-one months passed between the demotion and the commencement of this proceeding. The district court thought that Smith's reason for waiting--his fear of further retaliation against employees who file suits against the City--was a poor one because "it is such retribution that actions under Shakman are aimed at eliminating." The court held the claim barred by laches in light of "the harm presumably suffered by the City, a governmental employer," during the delay, 591 F.Supp. 635.


This court reviews findings of laches under a highly deferential standard. We reverse only if the losing party shows a "clear abuse of discretion." Piper Aircraft Corp. v. Wag-Aero, Inc., 741 F.2d 925, 932 (7th Cir.1984). Although the review is deferential, laches nonetheless presents challenging questions for all concerned. Laches is a question of degree. Laches may be invoked only when unreasonable delay and prejudice to the other party coincide. Lingenfelter v. Keystone Consolidated Industries, 691 F.2d 339 (7th Cir.1982). How much delay is "unreasonable"? Often the parties disagree about whether the plaintiff took other steps that put the defendant on notice; here, for example, Smith protested the demotion to several of his supervisors and for four months received bricklayers' wages for laborer's work. Is this form of self-protection enough to extend the time for suit?

Then there are questions about "prejudice." Does this include any monetary loss (such as the need to pay increasing sums in back wages) or only a diminution in the ability to defend against the claim? Compare Lingenfelter, supra, 691 F.2d at 342 (expressing doubt that an increase in liability for back pay is "prejudice"), with United States ex rel. Arant v. Lane, 249 U.S. 367, 39 S.Ct. 293, 63 L.Ed. 650 (1919) (delay that requires government to pay two salaries for a single service is prejudicial). In this case the City says it will have to pay substantial back wages; Smith says that what is big money to him is small from the City's perspective. The City says it would need to fire someone else to make room for Smith; is this "prejudice" at all? No matter what counts as prejudice, how much is too much?

Litigation about laches diverts time and energy from the central issue in the litigation. It is a costly, enervating sideshow. Litigation about laches in Shakman cases has become routine business in the district court. Shakman applies to most workers in Chicago's government. It may be in effect for many years to come. It is likely

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to affect thousands of employment decisions. In 1984 alone the district court published at least four decisions adjudicating claims of laches in cases under Shakman, and there must have been many more unpublished orders, such as the one we review here. See McGuire v. City of Chicago, 592...

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