Stallworth v. Monsanto Co.

Decision Date29 August 1977
Docket NumberNos. 75-2405 and 75-3425,s. 75-2405 and 75-3425
Citation558 F.2d 257
Parties17 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. 528, 14 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 7813 Eddie STALLWORTH et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. MONSANTO COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee, v. J. W. PALMER et al., Movants-Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

D. L. Middlebrooks, Jeffrey A. Cramer, David A. Reed, Pensacola, Fla., for movants-appellants.

Robert P. Gaines, Pensacola, Fla., Susan A. Cahoon, R. Lawrence Ashe, Jr., Atlanta, Ga., for Monsanto Co.

Kent Spriggs, Tallahassee, Fla., Elaine R. Jones, Barry Goldstein, Ronald L. Ellis, New York City, for E. Stallworth, et al.

Samuel Harris, E.E.O.C., Washington, D. C., for E.E.O.C.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

Before AINSWORTH and CLARK, Circuit Judges, and HUGHES *, District Judge.

CLARK, Circuit Judge:

These consolidated appeals are taken from the district court's denial of two petitions for leave to intervene under Rule 24 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The district court held that the requests were untimely. We reverse.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Three parties are before us in connection with this case. The plaintiffs are black employees who filed this class action against their employer, Monsanto Company, under Section 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1981 (1974), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et seq. (1974). Their suit attacks, among other things Monsanto's practice of using department or job group seniority to determine eligibility for promotion, vulnerability to layoff and rollback, and priority for shift and job selection. The would-be intervenors (appellants) are non-union white employees in the Intermediates department of Monsanto's Pensacola plant who claim that the remedial provisions of a consent order entered by the district court unnecessarily deprive them of their seniority rights.

Because the timeliness of the appellants' petition for leave to intervene is the central issue on appeal, it is important to establish the chronology and background of the litigation. This case began when the plaintiffs filed their complaint on April 13, 1973. After approximately one year of discovery and other pre-trial proceedings, they moved for partial summary judgment and preliminary injunctive relief. The district court scheduled a hearing on these motions for July 30 and 31, 1974. On July 17, counsel for Monsanto sent a letter to the district court advising it of two matters which the defendant thought required the court's attention before it ruled on the pending motions. Specifically, the letter expressed Monsanto's belief that the remedies sought by the plaintiffs would adversely affect some of Monsanto's white employees, and asked that the court ". . . notify or direct notification of Monsanto's white employees of the pendency of this action and give them a reasonable opportunity to intervene, or be joined as defendants . . .." The letter further stated that Monsanto was willing to post notices concerning the suit at its own expense, if the court would grant it permission to do so. 1 Such permission was not forthcoming. The plaintiffs opposed Monsanto's request, and it was denied by the district court during an untranscribed hearing held shortly after the letter was received.

The district court issued an order granting the plaintiffs' motions for partial summary judgment and enjoining a number of Monsanto's testing practices and educational requirements on September 12, 1974. Three months later it entered a pre-trial order establishing March 3, 1975 as the date on which the trial concerning the remaining issues in the case would begin. At the final pre-trial conference on February 24, the parties agreed to explore the possibility of reaching a settlement concerning at least some of the issues that had not yet been resolved. Because the discussions were progressing well, negotiations continued past the date on which the trial was to have begun. The parties arrived at a partial settlement of the case on March 7, and the district court approved their agreement. A consent order based upon the agreement was entered later that day. One of the provisions of the decree obligated Monsanto to abolish all departmental (or group) seniority rights and switch to a system of plant seniority plus certain residency requirements. 2 Another paragraph made "all roll backs effected by defendant in its wage roll jobs since February 1, 1975 . . . subject to the provisions of this order." The March 7 decree also awarded the plaintiffs permanent injunctive relief. Damages were left to be determined later by a special master. During the weeks that followed, the parties continued to negotiate and the district court entered additional consent orders disposing of minor issues.

The appellants first felt the impact of the March 7 order on March 17, when a rollback 3 that had been announced on February 7 and at least partially implemented during the intervening weeks was restructured in its seniority aspects to comply with the provisions of the consent decree. As a result, the appellants, who either had been told that they would not be rolled back or had retained their original jobs while others had been rolled back, were moved to lower paying jobs. Other employees in their department (both white and black), who were senior to the appellants in terms of the modified plant seniority system mandated by the March 7 order but junior to them in terms of the departmental seniority system it displaced, either remained in or were returned to their original jobs. 4 Affidavits filed by the appellants in support of their motion for leave to intervene indicate that the affiants were told by Monsanto that the changes in the announced rollback were necessitated by the entry of the March 7 order.

The appellants filed their original petition for leave to intervene as plaintiffs on April 4, 1975, just under one month after the entry of the March 7 order, and three weeks after they were first affected by the decree. In the complaint accompanying their petition, they alleged that Monsanto had breached its contract 5 with them by agreeing to abolish all departmental seniority rights and switch to a system of modified plant seniority. They also asserted that the district court had abused its discretion under 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-5(g) (1974). Since the abolition of the departmental seniority system enabled some white employees who were not members of the class affected by racial discrimination to pass the appellants on the seniority ladder, the appellants argued that the relief granted by the decree was unnecessarily broad. 6 On April 21, the district court denied their motion as untimely. Monsanto voiced no objection, but the court found that the appellants must have known of the pendency of the lawsuit at some unspecified time prior to the date on which they had filed their petition, and noted that they had presented no excuse for their "long" delay. The court also found that the progress of the case would be impeded if they were allowed to intervene. On May 13 the appellants noticed their appeal in No. 75-2405 from the district court's denial of this initial application for intervention.

After the special master had held hearings on the issue of damages, the appellants renewed their request for leave to intervene on July 8, 1975. Instead of a complaint, they filed a motion for relief from the March 7 order pursuant to Rule 60(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The appellants made it plain as they had at the April 21 hearing, that they did not wish to challenge the decree insofar as it affected the rights of black employees, but only insofar as it affected the comparative seniority status of white employees. As a result, the plaintiffs announced that they no longer opposed the appellants' intervention. Monsanto, however, reversed its previous position and opposed the motion.

On July 29, the district court denied the appellants' renewed application for intervention without a hearing. It explained that it did so for three reasons. First, the district court ruled that it could not decide the substantive question raised by their Rule 60(b) motion because it was one of the issues they had raised in the complaint accompanying their original petition for leave to intervene, and jurisdiction over that issue had passed to this court as a result of the appeal in No. 75-2405. Second, it reasoned that their second request was even less seasonable than their first because the renewed motion was filed after the original motion and because granting the petition would still delay the completion of the case. In particular, the district court suggested that it was possible that the hearings of the special master might have to be reopened if intervention were allowed. Finally, the district court expressed doubts concerning appellants' ability to satisfy the requirements of Rule 24(b)(2). In its view, the appellants' announced objective of securing reinstatement of the pre-March 7 departmental seniority system for the purposes of allocating benefits among white employees demonstrates that their dispute is entirely with Monsanto, and that their claim possesses no question of law or fact in common with the claims advanced by the plaintiffs. On August 28 the appellants noticed a second appeal, No. 75-3425, this time from the district court's denial of their renewed petition for leave to intervene.

II. APPELLATE JURISDICTION

Under this circuit's "anomalous rule" 7 governing the appealability of orders denying intervention, we have provisional jurisdiction to determine whether the district court erroneously concluded that the appellants were not entitled to intervene as of right under section (a) of Rule 24, or clearly abused its discretion in denying their application for permissive intervention under section (b) of Rule 24. If we...

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