Kelley v. Harrison

Decision Date22 June 2022
Docket Number1:21-cv-56-RAH-SMD [WO]
PartiesRANDY KELLEY, et al., Plaintiffs, v. JAIME HARRISON, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Alabama


This matter was filed after the bylaws of the State Democratic Executive Committee of Alabama (SDECA) were amended and restated during a special party meeting on October 5, 2019. Plaintiffs Randy Kelley and Janet May claim the bylaws violate a Consent Decree from 1991, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), 52 U.S.C. § 10301, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution because, they say, the bylaws dramatically reduced the influence of the Black minority caucus of the SDECA and eliminated the minority caucus's ability to select all at-large members to the SDECA. Plaintiffs name as defendants: the National Democratic Committee; the SDECA Christopher England, Chair of the SDECA; and Jaime Harrison Chair of the Democratic National Committee.

The Defendants move for dismissal on two grounds: (1) because the Plaintiffs' allegations, if assumed true, do not violate the plain terms of the Consent Decree, and (2) because there is no state action to support a VRA or constitutional violation.

After reviewing all the relevant filings, and having had the benefit of oral argument, the Court concludes that both of Defendants' arguments are correct, and that the Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 59) is due to be granted.


A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of the complaint against the legal standard set forth in Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which requires: “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). A “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” does not meet this requirement. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). When evaluating a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the court must take “the factual allegations in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Pielage v. McConnell, 516 F.3d 1282, 1284 (11th Cir. 2008). However, “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

“To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' Id. at 678 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). [D]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim is context specific, requiring the reviewing court to draw on its experience and common sense.” Id. at 663-64. But if the facts in the complaint “do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not ‘shown'-‘that the pleader is entitled to relief,' and the complaint must be dismissed. Id. at 679 (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).


The Court has subject matter jurisdiction over the federal claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Venue is uncontested and lies properly in the Middle District of Alabama.


In 1991, this Court entered a Consent Decree that settled litigation involving the participation of Black Democrats within the Alabama Democratic Party. (See Doc. 2.) The primary focus of the Consent Decree was the creation of a reform commission which would make recommendations for the SDECA to adopt. With its charge, the reform commission ultimately made recommendations that the SDECA adopted via the Figures Amendment (see Doc. 47 at 24-31) which included, among others, the ability of the minority caucus to select at-large members for the purpose of increasing minority membership on the SDECA to a level proportionate to either the percentage of Black voters who participated in the state democratic gubernatorial primary election or to the percentage of minorities in the state's population according to the most recent census.

While these reforms appear to have increased the membership of Black Democrats on the SDECA, such participation did not mean that all remained well and good within the SDECA. In more recent years, disputes have arisen between factions within the SDECA and the Democratic National Committee concerning the future direction of the Alabama Democratic Party and its long-time leadership by Nancy Worley and Joe L. Reed.

Those disputes culminated in the adoption of amended and restated bylaws during an October 5, 2019 SDECA meeting. Among others, the amended and restated bylaws changed the way the SDECA elected at-large members by shifting the power to elect at-large members solely from the Black minority caucus to the SDECA as a whole. (Doc. 47 at 12.) The bylaws also created six additional diversity caucuses, including those for young members, Hispanic members, LGBTQ+ members, Asian/Pacific Islander members, Native American members, and members with disabilities.

Shortly after the adoption of those bylaws, new leadership of the SDECA was elected, including Christopher England as Chair, who replaced long-time Chairwoman Nancy Worley, and Patricia Todd as Vice-Chair, who replaced ViceChair Randy Kelley. That same leadership remains in place today.

This lawsuit followed, after a state court lawsuit was filed in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, Alabama and was later dismissed.


A. The Alleged Violations of the Consent Decree

In Count I, Plaintiffs contend that the amended and restated bylaws “violate the consent decree in this case by reducing the influence of the Committee's existing minority caucus and by shifting control over the selection of at-large members of the minority caucus to the Committee's elected members.” (Doc. 47 at 14.) Defendants reply that the Plaintiffs point to no enforceable provision of the Consent Decree that has been violated by any Defendant, and therefore the Defendants move for dismissal of Count I for failure to state a claim.

To begin, consent decrees are interpreted and enforced according to their unambiguous terms. [L]ong standing precedent evinces a strong public policy against judicial rewriting of consent decrees. [A] district court may not impose obligations on a party that are not unambiguously mandated by the decree itself.' Reynolds v. Roberts, 207 F.3d 1288, 1300 (11th Cir. 2000) (quoting King v. Allied Vision, Ltd., 65 F.3d 1051, 1058 (2d Cir. 1995)) (some alterations in original). As the Supreme Court has held:

Consent decrees are entered into by parties to a case after careful negotiation has produced agreement on their precise terms. The parties waive their right to litigate the issues involved in the case and thus save themselves the time, expense, and inevitable risk of litigation. Naturally, the agreement reached normally embodies a compromise; in exchange for the saving of cost and elimination of risk, the parties each give up something they might have won had they proceeded with the litigation. Thus the decree itself cannot be said to have a purpose; rather the parties have purposes, generally opposed to each other, and the resultant decree embodies as much of those opposing purposes as the respective parties have the bargaining power and skill to achieve. For these reasons, the scope of a consent decree must be discerned within its four corners, and not by reference to what might satisfy the purposes of one of the parties to it.

United States v. Armour & Co., 402 U.S. 673, 681-82 (1971) (emphasis added); see also United States v. ITT Cont'l Baking Co., 420 U.S. 223, 233 (1975) ([A]ny command of a consent decree or order must be found within its four corners, and not by reference to any purposes of the parties or of the underlying statutes); United States v. Atl. Ref. Co., 360 U.S. 19, 23 (1959) (rejecting a loose interpretation of the consent decree even though such an interpretation might better effectuate the purposes of the acts allegedly violated); Hughes v. United States, 342 U.S. 353, 35657 (1952) (rejecting an invitation to advance the asserted purpose of the consent decree through an interpretation of a consent decree not justified by the four corners of the decree); Sierra Club v. Meiburg, 296 F.3d 1021, 1032 n.11 (11th Cir. 2002) (“In the case before us, the district court used what is considered to be the purpose of the decree to interpret expansively the decree's terms. That should not be done.”).

Consent decrees are judicially embraced contracts, as they include negotiated terms and are interpreted and construed according to the rules for construing contracts. See Peery v. City of Mia., 977 F.3d 1061, 1069 (11th Cir. 2020) (“Because a consent decree is a contract, we follow the rules for interpretation of contracts and apply principles of state contract law.”). Because consent decrees operate as a contract, to sufficiently plead a breach or violation of a consent decree, a plaintiff must identify those terms of the consent decree that have been purportedly breached to proceed on the claim. See Estate of Bass v. Regions Bank, Inc., 947 F.3d 1352, 1358 (11th Cir. 2020) ([Plaintiff] only ‘generally asserted' a breach of contract, without identifying ‘any provisions or any specific agreements that were breached . . . .' [T]his was insufficient to state a claim because [plaintiff] has not alleged any general or specific provision of any contract that [defendant] might have breached”).

Against this backdrop, the Defendants argue that the Plaintiffs fail to identify a single provision of the Consent Decree that the amended bylaws...

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