White v. Daniel

Decision Date14 August 1990
Docket NumberNo. 89-1550,89-1550
Citation909 F.2d 99
PartiesCharles WHITE; George R. Smith and James A. Smith, Jr., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Raymond S. DANIEL; Thomas B. Taylor; Walter Rice; Marion W. Peebles and Paul Harrison, in their official capacities as members of the Board of Supervisors of Brunswick County, Virginia; Mathew B. Morton; C.M. Caldwell and Jesse E. Capps, Sr., in their official capacities as members of the Electoral Board of Brunswick County, Virginia and Barbara Lewis, in her official capacity as Registrar of Brunswick County, Virginia, Defendants-Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Anne Gordon Greever, argued (Joseph D. McCluskey, on brief), Hunton & Williams, Richmond, Va., for defendants-appellants.

Gerald Thomas Zerkin, argued (Karen L. Ely-Pierce, Kelley H. Brandt, on brief), Gerald T. Zerkin & Associates, Richmond, Va., for plaintiffs-appellees.

Before SPROUSE, CHAPMAN, and WILKINS, Circuit Judges.

CHAPMAN, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiffs-appellees Charles White, James A. Smith, Jr., and George R. Smith, who are adult black citizens registered to vote in Brunswick County, Virginia, and the Brunswick County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) brought this action against defendants-appellants, members of the Brunswick County Board of Supervisors (the Board) (Raymond S. Daniel, Thomas B. Taylor, Walter Rice, Marion W. Peebles, and Paul Harrison), members of the Electoral Board of Brunswick County (Mathew B. Morton, C.M. Caldwell, and Jesse E. Capps, Jr.), and the Registrar of Brunswick County (Barbara Lewis). The plaintiffs allege that the method of election of the members of the Board results in the abridgement of their right to vote in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1973 (Supp.1989) (the Act), and dilutes, minimizes or cancels the voting strength of blacks in violation of the First, Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. After dismissing plaintiffs' constitutional claims, the district court held that the current electoral system for the Board violated Section 2 of the Act and ordered the redistricting of Brunswick County not later than December 31, 1990. While we recognize and respect the seriousness of plaintiffs' allegations, we find the district court erred in failing to apply the equitable doctrine of laches to bar plaintiffs' present claims, and we reverse.


Brunswick County is a primarily rural county in southside Virginia that, according to the 1980 census, is 57.4% black. It is governed by a five-member Board of Supervisors elected every four years from five single member districts. The original districts, which were coextensive with the five magisterial districts (Meherrin, Powellton, Red Oak, Sturgeon, and the town of Lawrenceville), were redistricted in 1971 to comply with the constitutional requirement of proportional representation. This created the present five numbered districts of which Districts Two and Four had black populations greater than 65%, and Districts Three and Five had black populations greater than 50%. Before the redistricting, only one magisterial district had a black majority over 65%. The County was not redistricted following the 1980 census, which reflected the black population of each district as follows: District One: 50.7%; District Two: 64.8%; District Three: 55%; District Four: 68.2%; and District Five: 48.9%. No one challenged the 1971 redistricting nor the 1981 decision not to redistrict following the 1980 census.

The plaintiffs initiated this action by filing their complaint in September 1988, seventeen years after the 1971 redistricting, and claim that the method of election of the Board violated Section 2. The plaintiffs contended that there was a long history of discrimination against blacks in Brunswick County and that only Districts Two and Four have elected black representatives to the Board since 1975, and the remaining districts have elected no blacks. As a result, the Board has never had a black majority, although the County has a black majority. In its answer, the County asserted in part that plaintiffs' claims for relief are barred by the doctrine of laches.

At the close of plaintiffs' case, the court dismissed their constitutional claim, finding that there was no evidence of intentional discrimination in the formation or implementation of the system. However, the court subsequently held that the County violated plaintiffs' statutory rights under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. 1 Applying the framework set forth in Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 106 S.Ct. 2752, 92 L.Ed.2d 25 (1986), 2 the district court found that the County's black population is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute an effective voting majority in three election districts and that the County's elections were characterized by racially polarized voting. The court relied heavily on the testimony of plaintiffs' expert witness, Dr. Allan J. Lichtman. 3 Consequently, the court concluded that "the current system for election to the Board of Supervisors has interacted with past and present official discrimination and social conditions to deprive the black population of an equal opportunity to participate in the political system and to elect representatives of their choice."


We need not address the variety of claims made by the plaintiffs, because we feel that the application of the doctrine of laches is dispositive. Laches is one of the affirmative defenses generally allowable under Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(c), although it is properly relevant only where the claims presented may be characterized as equitable, rather than legal. See Environmental Defense Fund, Inc. v. Alexander, 614 F.2d 474, 478 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 919, 101 S.Ct. 316, 66 L.Ed.2d 146 (1980). Laches imposes on the defendant the ultimate burden of proving "(1) lack of diligence by the party against whom the defense is asserted, and (2) prejudice to the party asserting the defense." Costello v. United States, 365 U.S. 265, 282, 81 S.Ct. 534, 543, 5 L.Ed.2d 551 (1961). Needless to say, whether laches bars an action depends upon the particular circumstances of the case. National Wildlife Federation v. Burford, 835 F.2d 305, 318 (D.C.Cir.1987). As a result, the equitable balancing of a plaintiff's delay with prejudice to a defendant is primarily left to the sound discretion of the trial court, and we may not reverse " 'unless it is so clearly wrong as to amount to an abuse of discretion.' " Lingenfelter v. Keystone Consol. Indus., Inc., 691 F.2d 339, 341 (7th Cir.1982) (quoting Baker Mfg. Co. v. Whitewater Mfg. Co., 430 F.2d 1008, 1009 (7th Cir.1970), cert. denied, 401 U.S. 956, 91 S.Ct. 978, 28 L.Ed.2d 240 (1971)).

The first element of laches--lack of diligence--exists where "the plaintiff delayed inexcusably or unreasonably in filing suit." National Wildlife Federation, 835 F.2d at 318. See also Giddens v. Isbrandtsen Co., 355 F.2d 125, 128 (4th Cir.1966) (where "inexcusable or inadequately excused delay"); Baylor University Medical Center v. Heckler, 758 F.2d 1052, 1057 (5th Cir.1985) (where "delay is not excusable"). An inexcusable or unreasonable delay may occur only after the plaintiff discovers or with reasonable diligence could have discovered the facts giving rise to his cause of action. See Ward v. Ackroyd, 344 F.Supp. 1202, 1212 (D.Md.1972); Knox v. Milwaukee County Bd. of Elections Comm'rs, 581 F.Supp. 399, 402 (E.D.Wis.1984). The defendant may show lack of diligence either by proof that the action was not commenced within the period provided by the applicable statute of limitations or by facts otherwise indicating a lack of vigilance. Giddens, 355 F.2d at 128.

The second element--prejudice to the defendant--is demonstrated by a disadvantage on the part of the defendant in asserting or establishing a claimed right or some other harm caused by detrimental reliance on the plaintiff's conduct. Gull Airborne Instruments, Inc. v. Weinberger, 694 F.2d 838, 844 (D.C.Cir.1982). However, the defendant "is aided by the inference of prejudice warranted by the plaintiff's delay. The plaintiff is then to be heard to excuse his apparent laggardness and to prove facts manifesting an absence of actual prejudice." Giddens, 355 F.2d at 128. Clearly the greater the delay, the less the prejudice required to show laches, and vice versa. But the defendant is ultimately required to prove prejudice (given the defendant's burden to plead and prove laches under Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(c)) and "may either rest on the inference alone or introduce additional evidence." Id.

We find that the plaintiffs' delay was inexcusable and unreasonable. The Board adopted the current districting plan in 1971, based on the 1970 census figures; after looking at the 1980 census results, the Board decided in 1981 to continue the 1971 plan with no changes whatsoever. However, the plaintiffs voiced no objection either to the 1971 redistricting or to the 1981 decision not to redistrict, and waited until September 1988 to file this action, seventeen years after the 1971 plan was adopted and months after the last election under the 1981 plan took place. 4

Plaintiffs contend that their delay was justified on the grounds that the additional time provided them with more elections for the utilization of ecological regression and other methods of determining the existence of racially polarized voting. In particular, plaintiffs point out that filing before November 1987 would have eliminated seven elections on which Dr. Lichtman relied. The plaintiffs ignore the election results from the 1970s and early 1980s that Dr. Lichtman used and do not explain how such results are inadequate to support their claims. 5 Indeed, the conclusions that Dr. Lichtman draws from...

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