17-Year Class Action Against E.D. Dismissed

By Tom Mirga — January 13, 1988 6 min read
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Washington--Lawyers for the plaintiffs in a landmark nationwide class action that charges the Education Department with lax enforcement of civil-rights laws say they will appeal a federal judge’s decision to dismiss the case.

Judge John H. Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held Dec. 14 that the plaintiffs in the 17-year-old suit, currently known as Adams v. Bennett, lack legal standing to force the department to be more vigorous in its administration of laws barring discrimination against minorities, women, and the handicapped.

Judge Pratt based his 31-page opinion primarily on a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that black parents cannot turn to the federal courts to force the Internal Revenue Service to apply more forcefully its policy of denying tax-exempt status to racially discriminatory schools.

In the absence of “actual present or immediately threatened injury resulting from unlawful governmental action,” the Justices held in that case, Allen v. Wright, plaintiffs lack standing to seek such judicial intervention.

A federal appellate court had directed Judge Pratt to review his earlier rulings in the Adams case in light of the High Court’s opinion in Allen.

In a series of orders in the case over the past 12 years, Judge Pratt had required the department’s office for civil rights to adhere to strict time frames in its processing of complaints by individuals and its own periodic investigations of schools and colleges. The most recent order, issued in 1983, also required ocr to provide the judge twice annually with detailed statistical reports on its enforcement activities.

Those orders could not pass muster under the Justices’ 1984 ruling, Judge Pratt concluded.

‘Distressed’ by Decision

The Adams plaintiffs--50 individuals and 11 organizations--have argued that the deadlines approved by Judge Pratt have been necessary to combat what they claim is ocr’s long history of excessive and unwarranted delays in resolving civil-rights disputes.

The Reagan Administration, meanwhile, has contended that the judge’s orders are “unworkable, inflexible, and unrealistic,” and violate the constitutional principle of separation of powers by involving the judiciary in executive-branch affairs.

“Obviously, we are disappointed and distressed” by the ruling, said Elliott C. Lichtman, a Washington-based lawyer for the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represents the black plaintiffs in the case.

“It’s very unusual after years of litigation, and after having obtained relief from a court, to have the same court find that you have no standing to litigate,” he said.

Mr. Lichtman said the plaintiffs “are giving some thought” to asking Judge Pratt to issue a stay of his order pending an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Education Department officials, meanwhile, were quick to praise the ruling.

“After 17 years, the department welcomes this opportunity to resume full responsibility for the day-to-day affairs” of ocr, Wendell L. Willkie 2nd, the department’s general counsel, said in a statement.

He added that the civil-rights office would “continue thoroughly to investigate alleged violations” of the three civil-rights laws involved in the case--Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and national origin; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars schools and colleges from discriminating against women; and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which bars discrimination against the handicapped.

Case Background

Although Judge Pratt’s December order lifted the time frames he had imposed, ocr will continue to abide by them pending a reassessment “to determine if any changes are necessary and appropriate,” said LeGree Daniels, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights. Garry Curran, a spokesman for Ms. Daniels, did not indicate when the results of that study would be announced.

The case began in 1970 in response to the Nixon Administration’s policy of opposing the forced desegregation of schools and colleges in the South.

Twenty-six black schoolchildren and college students, represented by the naacp-ldf, filed a suit claiming that the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was violating its responsibilities under Title VI by refusing to cut off federal aid to segregated institutions.

The Administration countered that its decision to seek only voluntary compliance with the civil-rights law was a matter of absolute executive-branch discretion.

In 1973, the federal appeals court in Washington affirmed Judge Pratt’s ruling earlier that year that hew had failed to take “appropriate action to end segregation” in 10 state-operated higher-education systems and more than 200 school districts in 17 Southern states. It added that the Administration’s policy of seeking voluntary compliance with Title VI without the threat of sanctions was “untenable in light of the plain language of the statute.”

Breadth and Focus

The breadth of the suit was expanded considerably in subsequent years.

In the mid-1970’s, Judge Pratt widened the scope of his orders to apply to all race-discrimination disputes nationwide. At about the same time, he permitted individuals and groups representing women, the handicapped, and Hispanics to intervene in the case to raise similar claims regarding Title IX, Section 504, and Title VI’s national-origin provision.

The focus of the suit shifted as well. Upset by what they perceived as foot-dragging on the part of hew, the plaintiffs sought additional court orders to require the department to enforce the laws more vigorously.

The result was a consent decree negotiated in 1975 by the plaintiffs and hew, then under the Ford Administration, and approved by Judge Pratt that established time frames for the processing of complaints and compliance reviews. A second, more extensive consent decree was negotiated by the plaintiffs and Carter Administration officials and approved by the judge in 1977.

In 1981, the plaintiffs filed papers with Judge Pratt charging the Education Department, which had inherited hew’s reponsibility for enforcing civil-rights laws regarding education, with chronic delays in meeting the deadlines set under the 1977 decree.

The department, then under the Reagan Administration’s control, responded by requesting that the time frames be abolished.

In 1983, Judge Pratt handed down a pair of orders that rejected the Administration’s request and strengthened the 1977 order.

The case again returned the appellate court, and in an unexpected move in September 1984, the court “on its own motion” sent the case back to Judge Pratt for a determination of the plaintiffs’ standing to pursue the case.

The appeals court based its action on the Supreme Court’s 1984 ruling in the Allen case.

Pratt’s Decision

In dismissing the Adams suit, Judge Pratt relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s decision.

It is a “well-established rule that the government has traditionally been granted the widest latitude in the dispatch of its own internal affairs,” he wrote.

“On two previous occasions, [the court of appeals] has referred to the scope of our original order as requiring only the initiation of the enforcement process, not the perpetual supervision of the details of any enforcement program,” the judge continued.

His earlier orders and time frames, he said, “not only go well beyond the initiation of the enforcement process, but, through the detailed imposition of precise time frames governing every step in the administrative process, seek to control the way defendants are to carry out their executive responsibilities.”

"[Plaintiffs do not claim that defendants have abrogated their statutory responsibilities,” he noted, “but rather that, in carrying them out, they do not always process complaints, conduct investigations, issue letters of finding, or conduct compliance reviews as promptly or expeditiously as plaintiffs would like.”

“To believe that strict enforcement of time frames in the administrative processing of complaints ... would redress the injury of which plaintiffs complain is to indulge in speculation,” he concluded.

A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 1988 edition of Education Week as 17-Year Class Action Against E.D. Dismissed


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