E.D. Told To Speed Investigation Of School Civil-Rights Cases

By Tom Mirga — March 23, 1983 5 min read
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A federal district judge here has told the Reagan Administration that it must comply with a six-year-old court order that controls the way the government processes civil-rights complaints filed against schools and colleges.

In addition, U.S. District Judge John H. Pratt ordered the Education and Labor Departments to speed up their standing investigations of race, sex, and handicap bias in educational institutions and to provide the court twice annually with comprehensive reports on their enforcement activities.

Negotiate Settlement

Specifically, the 1977 Adams/weal order, as it is commonly known, requires the departments to determine within 90 days of receiving a complaint whether a civil-rights violation has occurred. During the next 90 days, they must try to negotiate a settlement with officials at the school or college where the violation occurred. If those negotiations fail, the departments have another 30 days to launch enforcement proceedings.

Judge Pratt’s order on March 11 marked the latest step in Adams v. Bell and Women’s Equity Action League v. Bell, a pair of lawsuits that are often described as the most important litigation pending against the federal government for failure to enforce civil-rights laws.

The Adams case began in 1970 with a class-action suit filed against the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare by the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. It charged that the department was inadequately enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination on the basis of race.

In 1974, weal filed a similar suit charging that the department was inadequately enforcing Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a similar statute that bars sex discrimination. Other groups, most notably those concerned about the enforcement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, have since joined the lawsuit against the government.

In 1977, Judge Pratt issued an order in the cases, which are being heard together, that set timetables and guidelines for the departments’ enforcement of the civil-rights laws and for their enforcement of a Presidential order requiring federal contractors to eliminate discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and handicap.

In July 1981, the civil-rights groups filed motions with Judge Pratt charging that the departments were not following through with the 1977 order because they were not processing complaints within the time limits set by the court. In February 1982, the judge ordered the departments to tell him why they should not be held in contempt of court for failing to adhere to the time limits.

Order Violated

After three days of hearings the following month, Judge Pratt ruled that the order had “been violated in many important respects,” but declined to find the departments in contempt. Instead, he gave the civil-rights groups and the departments until last Aug. 15 to reach a new agreement on the time frames.

No such agreement could be reached. Instead, the departments filed a motion with the court asking it to phase out the 1977 order over two years. They claimed that the time frames established under the order were “unworkable, inflexible, and unrealistic.” At that point, the rights groups asked Judge Pratt once again to find the departments in contempt.

Although he declined for a second time to find the departments in contempt, Judge Pratt in large part sided with the civil-rights groups when he issued his order in the lawsuit earlier this month.

“If the government is left to its own devices, the manpower that would normally be devoted to this type of thing ... might be shunted off into other directions, will fade away, and the substance of compliance will eventually go out the window,” he said in dismissing the department’s motion to do away with the 1977 order.

Furthermore, Judge Pratt handed down a strict new set of guidelines for the processing of complaints and compliance reviews that have been held up in the departments while the litigation has been pending.

He gave the Education Department until May 11 to resolve all complaints and compliance reviews in which investigations have been completed, and until Aug. 11 to resolve all such complaints and reviews in which investigations are still pending.

The May 11 order allows the department to delay the final resolution of only 20 percent of these complaints and reviews for up to one year, as was the case under the original 1977 order. But in the future, the department must resolve these cases no later than 330 days after it receives a complaint or within 345 days of initiating a compliance review.

In addition, Judge Pratt ordered both the Education and Labor Departments to provide him and the civil-rights groups with detailed reports twice annually on their enforcement activities during the previous six months.

Lawyers representing the weal plaintiffs in the case called Judge Pratt’s order this month “a stunning victory.”

“It is fortunate that the courts are prepared to take action, because when left on their own, Secretaries [of Education Terrel H.] Bell and [of Labor Raymond J.] Donovan have refused to enforce these important laws,” said Marcia D. Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center.

Forced to Take Jobs Seriously

“This order means that Secretaries Bell and Donovan can no longer flout the law,” added Margaret A. Kohn, one of the lawyers representing the weal plaintiffs. “They will be forced to take their civil-rights enforcement jobs seriously.”

Representatives of the Education Department’s office for civil rights, which is responsible for the enforcement of the anti-discrimination laws, could not be reached for comment on the effect of the order.

In a related development, a spokesman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said last week that it remained unclear how Judge Pratt’s ruling in the Adams and weal cases would affect a new federal rule requiring the commission to investigate all employment-bias complaints filed by individuals.

The new rule, published jointly by the commission and the Justice Department earlier this year and scheduled to go into effect on March 28, applies only to complaints alleging either racially or sexually motivated bias, according to Jane McVicker, a spokesman for the commission.

She said that the commission and the Justice Department have not yet decided whether they would issue an amended rule exempting the Education Department from the new complaint-resolution scheme. The commission was scheduled to take up the matter at a meeting this week.

A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 1983 edition of Education Week as E.D. Told To Speed Investigation Of School Civil-Rights Cases


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