Excerpts From The Court's Ruling In Memphis Firefighter's Case

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In the excerpts that follow, single asterisks in brackets, [

  • ], denote footnotes that have been omitted; double asterisks, [
  • ], denote legal citations omitted.

From the Opinion by Justice White

Justice White delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners challenge the court of appeals' approval of an order enjoining the City of Memphis from following its seniority system in determining who must be laid off as a result of a budgetary shortfall. Respondents contend that the injunction was necessary to effectuate the terms of a Title VII consent decree in which the city agreed to undertake certain obligations in order to remedy past hiring and promotional practices. Because we conclude that the order cannot be justified, either as an effort to enforce the consent decree or as a valid modification, we reverse. ...

The issue at the heart of this case is whether the district court exceeded its powers in entering an injunction requiring white employees to be laid off, when the otherwise applicable seniority system [

  • ] would have called for the layoff of black employees with less seniority. [
  • ] We are convinced that the court of appeals erred in resolving this issue and in affirming the district court.


The court of appeals first held that the injunction did no more than enforce the terms of the agreed-upon consent decree. This specific-performance approach rests on the notion that because the city was under a general obligation to use its best efforts to increase the proportion of blacks on the force, it breached the decree by attempting to effectuate a layoff policy reducing the percentage of black employees in the department even though such a policy was mandated by the seniority system adopted by the city and the union. A variation of this argument is that since the decree permitted the district court to enter any later orders that "may be necessary or appropriate to effectuate the purposes of this decree," [

  • ] the city had agreed in advance to an injunction against layoffs that would reduce the proportion of black employees. We are convinced, however, that both of these are improvident constructions of the consent decree.

It is to be recalled that 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" or by what "might have been written had the plaintiff established his factual claims and legal theories in litigation." United States v. Armour & Co., 402 U.S. 673, 681-682 (1971). Here, as the district court recognized, there is no mention of layoffs or demotions within the four corners of the decree; nor is there any suggestion of an intention to depart from the existing seniority system or from the city's arrangements with the union. We cannot believe that the parties to the decree thought that the city would simply disregard its arrangements with the union and the seniority system it was then following. Had there been any intention to depart from the seniority plan in the event of layoffs or demotions, it is much more reasonable to believe that there would have been an express provision to that effect. This is particularly true since the decree stated that it was not "intended to conflict with any provisions" of the 1974 decree and since the latter decree expressly anticipated that the city would recognize seniority. It is thus not surprising that when the city anticipated layoffs and demotions, it in the first instance faithfully followed its pre-existing seniority system, plainly having no thought that it had already agreed to depart from it. It therefore cannot be said that the express terms of the decree contemplated that such an injunction would be entered.

The argument that the injunction was proper because it carried out the purposes of the decree is equally unconvincing. The decree announced that its purpose was "to remedy past hiring and promotion practices'' of the department and to settle the dispute as to the "appropriate and valid procedures for hiring and promotion." The decree went on to provide the agreed-upon remedy, but as we have indicated, that remedy did not include the displacement of white employees with seniority over blacks. Furthermore, it is reasonable to believe that the "remedy'' which it was the purpose of the decree to provide, would not exceed the bounds of the remedies that are appropriate under Title VII, at least absent some express provision to that effect. As our cases have made clear, however, and as will be re-emphasized below, Title VII protects bona fide seniority systems, and it is inappropriate to deny an innocent employee the benefits of his seniority in order to provide a remedy in a pattern or practice suit such as this. We thus have no doubt that the city considered this system to be valid and that it had no intention of departing from it when it agreed to the 1980 decree. ...

The court of appeals held that even if the injunction is not viewed as compelling compliance with the terms of the decree, it was still properly entered because the district court had inherent authority to modify the decree when an economic crisis unexpectedly required layoffs which, if carried out as the city proposed, would undermine the affirmative action outlined in the decree and impose an undue hardship on respondents. This was true, the court held, even though the modification conflicted with a bona fide seniority system adopted by the city. The court of appeals erred in reaching this conclusion. [

  • ]

Section 703(h) of Title VII provides that it is not an unlawful employment practice to apply different standards of compensation, or different terms, conditions, or privileges of employment persuant to a bona fide seniority system, provided that such differences are not the result of an intention to discriminate because of race. [

  • ] It is clear that the city had a seniority system, that its proposed layoff plan conformed to that system, and that in making the settlement the city had not agreed to award competitive seniority to any minority employee whom the city proposed to lay off. The district court held that the city could not follow its seniority system in making its proposed layoffs because its proposal was discriminatory in effect and hence not a bona fide plan. Section 703(h), however, permits the routine application of a seniority system absent proof of an intention to discriminate. Teamsters v. United States, 431 U.S. 324, 352 (1977). Here, the district court itself found that the layoff proposal was not adopted with the purpose or intent to discriminate on the basis of race. Nor had the city in agreeing to the decree admitted in any way that it had engaged in intentional discrimination. The court of appeals was therefore correct in disagreeing with the district court's holding that the layoff plan was not a bona fide application of the seniority system, and it would appear that the city could not be faulted for following the seniority plan expressed in its agreement with the union. The court of appeals nevertheless held that the injunction was proper even though it conflicted with the seniority system. This was error.

To support its position, the court of appeals first proposed a "settlement" theory, i.e., that the strong policy favoring voluntary settlement of Title VII actions permitted consent decrees that encroached on seniority systems. But at this stage in its opinion, the court of appeals was supporting the proposition that even if the injunction was not merely enforcing the agreed-upon terms of the decree, the district court had the authority to modify the decree over the objection of one of the parties. The settlement theory, whatever its merits might otherwise be, has no application when there is no "settlement" with respect to the disputed issue. Here, the agreed-upon decree neither awarded competitive seniority to the minority employees nor purported in any way to depart from the seniority system.

A second ground advanced by the court of appeals in support of the conclusion that the injunction could be entered notwithstanding its conflict with the seniority system was the assertion that "[i]t would be incongruous to hold that the use of the preferred means of resolving an employment discrimination action decreases the power of a court to order relief which vindicates its policies embodied within Title VII, and 42 U.S.C. 1981 and 1983." The court concluded that if the allegations in the complaint had been proved, the district court could have entered an order overriding the seniority provisions. Therefore, the court reasoned, "[t]he trial court had the authority to override the Firefighter's Union seniority provisions to effectuate the purpose of the 1980 decree."

titled to particular relief other than those listed in the exhibits attached to the decree. It therefore seems to us that in light of Teamsters, the court of appeals imposed on the parties as an adjunct of settlement something that could not have been ordered had the case gone to trial and the plaintiffs proved that a pattern or practice of discrimination existed. ...

Finally, the court of appeals was of the view that the district court ordered no more than that which the city unilaterally could have done by way of adopting an affirmative action program. Whether the city, a public employer, could have taken this course without violating the law is an issue we need not decide. The fact is that in this case the city took no such action and that the modification of the decree was imposed over its objection. [

  • ]

We thus are unable to agree either that the order entered by the district court was a justifiable effort to enforce the terms of the decree to which the city had agreed or that it was a legitimate modification of the decree that could be imposed on the city without its consent. Accordingly, the judgment of the court of appeals is reversed.

From the Dissenting Opinion

Justice Blackmun, with whom Justice Brennan and Justice Marshall join, dissenting.

Today's opinion is troubling less for the law it creates than for the law it ignores. The issues in these cases arose out of a preliminary injunction that prevented the City of Memphis from conducting a particular layoff in a particular manner. Because that layoff has ended, the preliminary injunction no longer restrains any action that the city wishes to take. The court nevertheless rejects the respondents' claim that these cases are moot because the Court concludes that there are continuing effects from the preliminary injunction and that these create a continuing controversy. The Court appears oblivious, however, to the fact that any continuing legal consequences of the preliminary injunction would be erased by simply vacating the court of appeals' judgment, which is the Court's longstanding practices with cases that become moot.

Having improperly asserted jurisdiction, the Court then ignores the proper standard of review. The district court's action was a preliminary injunction reviewable only on an abuse of discretion standard; the Court treats the action as a permanent injunction and decides the merit, even though the district court has not yet had an opportunity to do so. On the merits, the Court ignores the specific facts of these cases that make inapplicable the decisions on which it relies. Because, in my view, the Court's decision is demonstrably in error, I respectfully dissent. ...

Because there is now no justifiable controversy in these cases, today's decision by the Court is an improper exercise of judicial power. It is not my purpose in dissent to parallel the Court's error and speculate on the appropriate disposition of these nonjustifiable cases. In arriving at its result, however, the Court's analysis is misleading in many ways and in other ways it is simply in error. ...

It begins its analysis by stating that the "issue at the heart of this case" is the district court's power to "ente[r] an injunction requiring white employees to be laid off." That statement, with all respect, is simply incorrect. On its face, the preliminary injunction prohibited the city from conducting layoffs in accordance with its seniority system "insofar as it will decrease the percentage of black[s] ... presently employed" in certain job categories. The preliminary injunction did not require the city to lay off any white employees at all. In fact, several parties interested in the suit, including the union, attempted to persuade the city to avoid layoffs entirely by reducing the working hours of all fire department employees. Thus, although the district court order reduced the city's options in meeting its fiscal crisis, it did not require the dismissal of white employees. The choice of a modified layoff plan remained that of the city. ...

It is clear, therefore, that the correctness of the district court's interpretation of the decree is irrelevant with respect to enforceability of the union's contractual rights; those rights remained enforceable regardless of whether the city had an obligation not to lay off blacks. [

  • ] The question in these cases remains whether the district court's authority pursuant to the consent decree enabled it to enjoin a layoff of more than a certain number of blacks. The issue is not whether the district court could require the city to lay off whites, or whether the district court could abrogate contractual rights of white firefighters. ...

ty to substantiate these claims, and then faults them for having failed to do so. But without determining whether these allegations have any substance, there is simply no way to determine whether the proposed layoff plan violated the terms of the consent decree.

Even if respondents could not have shown that the proposed layoff plan conflicted with the city's obligation of good faith, 17 of the decree also empowered the district court to enter orders to "effectuate the purposes" of the decree. Thus, if the district court concluded that the layoffs would frustrate those purposes, then the decree empowered the district court to enter an appropriate order. Once again, however, on the limited factual record before the Court, it is improper to speculate about whether the layoffs would have frustrated the gains made under the consent decree sufficiently to justify a permanent injunction.

ad notions as the "purposes" of a decree is not a rewriting of the parties' agreement, but rather a part of the attempt to implement the written terms. The district judge in these cases, who presided over the negotiation of the consent decree, is in a unique position to determine the nature of the parties' original intent, and he has a distinctive familiarity with the circumstances that shaped the decree and defined its purposes. Accordingly, he should be given special deference to interpret the general and any ambiguous terms in the decree. It simply is not a sufficient response to conclude, as the Court does, that the district court could not enjoin the proposed layoff plan merely because the layoffs were not specifically mentioned in the consent decree. ..

ing equities was within the court's power. In either case, the district court's preliminary injunction terminated many months ago, and I regret the Court's insistence upon unnecessarily reviving a past controversy.

Vol. 04, Issue 40 & 41

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