Firefighters v. Stotts
Annotate this Case
467 U.S. 561 (1984)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Firefighters v. Stotts, 467 U.S. 561 (1984)
Firefighters Local Union No. 1784 v. Stotts
Argued December 6, 1984
Decided June 12, 1984*
467 U.S. 561
Respondent Stotts, a black member of petitioner Memphis, Tenn., Fire Department, filed a class action in Federal District Court charging that the Department and certain city officials were engaged in a pattern or practice of making hiring and promotion decisions on the basis of race in violation of, inter alia, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This action was consolidated with an action filed by respondent Jones, also a black member of the Department, who claimed that he had been denied a promotion because of his race. Thereafter, a consent decree was entered with the stated purpose of remedying the Department's hiring and promotion practices with respect to blacks. Subsequently, when the city announced that projected budget deficits required a reduction of city employees, the District Court entered an order preliminarily enjoining the Department from following its seniority system in determining who would be laid off as a result of the budgetary shortfall, since the proposed layoffs would have a racially discriminatory effect and the seniority system was not a bona fide one. A modified layoff plan, aimed at protecting black employees so as to comply with the court's order, was then presented and approved, and layoffs pursuant to this plan were carried out. This resulted in white employees with more seniority than black employees being laid off when the otherwise applicable seniority system would have called for the layoff of black employees with less seniority. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that, although the District Court was wrong in holding that the seniority system was not bona fide, it had acted properly in modifying the consent decree.
1. These cases are not rendered moot by the facts that the preliminary injunction purportedly applied only to 1981 layoffs, that all white employees laid off as a result of the injunction were restored to duty only one month after their layoff, and that others who were demoted have been offered back their old positions. First, the injunction is still in force, and, unless set aside, must be complied with in connection with any
future layoffs. Second, even if the injunction applied only to the 1981 layoffs, the predicate for it was the ruling that the consent decree must be modified to provide that the layoffs were not to reduce the percentage of black employees, and the lower courts' rulings that the seniority system must be disregarded for the purpose of achieving the mandated result remain undisturbed. Accordingly, the inquiry is not merely whether the injunction is still in effect, but whether the mandated modification of the consent decree continues to have an impact on the parties such that the cases remain alive. Respondents have failed to convince this Court that the modification and the pro tanto invalidation of the seniority system are of no real concern to the city because it will never again contemplate layoffs that, if carried out in accordance with the seniority system, would violate the modified decree. Finally, the judgment below will have a continuing effect on management of the Fire Department with respect to making whole the white employees who were laid off and thereby lost a month's pay and seniority, or who were demoted and thereby may have backpay claims. Unless that judgment is reversed, the layoffs and demotions were in accordance with the law. The fact that not much money and seniority are involved does not determine mootness. Pp. 467 U. S. 568-572.
2. The District Court's preliminary injunction cannot be justified either as an effort to enforce the consent decree or as a valid modification thereof. Pp. 467 U. S. 572-583.
(a) The injunction does not merely enforce the agreement of the parties as reflected in the consent decree. The scope of a consent decree must be discerned within its four corners. Here, the consent decree makes no mention of layoffs or demotions, nor is there any suggestion of an intention to depart from the existing seniority system or from the Department's arrangement with the union. It therefore cannot be said that the decree's express terms contemplated that such an injunction would be entered. Nor is the injunction proper as carrying out the stated purpose of the decree. The remedy outlined in the decree did not include the displacement of white employees with seniority over blacks, and cannot reasonably be construed to exceed the bounds of remedies that are appropriate under Title VII. 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. Moreover, since neither the union nor the white employees were parties to the suit when the consent decree was entered, the entry of such decree cannot be said to indicate any agreement by them to any of its terms. Pp. 467 U. S. 573-576.
(b) The theory that the strong policy favoring voluntary settlement of Title VII actions permits consent decrees that encroach on seniority
systems does not justify the preliminary injunction as a legitimate modification of the consent decree. That theory has no application when there is no "settlement" with respect to the disputed issue, such as here, where the consent decree neither awarded competitive seniority to the minority employees nor purported to depart from the existing seniority system. Nor can the injunction be so justified on the basis that, if the allegations in the complaint had been proved, the District Court could have entered an order overriding the seniority provisions. This approach overstates a trial court's authority to disregard a seniority system in fashioning a remedy after a plaintiff has proved that an employer has followed a pattern or practice having a discriminatory effect on black employees. Here, there was no finding that any of the blacks protected from layoff had been a victim of discrimination nor any award of competitive seniority to any of them. The Court of Appeals' holding that the District Court's order modifying the consent decree was permissible as a valid Title VII remedial order ignores not only the ruling in Teamsters v. United States, 431 U. S. 324, that a court can award competitive seniority only when the beneficiary of the award has actually been a victim of illegal discrimination, but also the policy behind § 706(g) of Title VII of providing make-whole relief only to such victims. And there is no merit to the argument that the District Court ordered no more than that which the city could have done by way of adopting an affirmative action program, since the city took no such action, and the modification of the decree was imposed over its objection. Pp. 467 U. S. 576-583.
679 F.2d 541, reversed.
WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 467 U. S. 583. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 467 U. S. 590. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 467 U. S. 593.