Martin v. Wilks,
490 U.S. 755 (1989)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Martin v. Wilks, 490 U.S. 755 (1989)

Martin v. Wilks

No. 87-1614

Argued January 18, 1989

Decided June 12, 1989*

490 U.S. 755


Black individuals and a branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People brought actions in Federal District Court against the city of Birmingham, Alabama, and the Jefferson County Personnel Board (Board), alleging that the defendants had engaged in racially discriminatory hiring and promotion practices in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal law. Consent decrees were eventually entered that included goals for hiring blacks as firefighters and for promoting them. Respondent white firefighters subsequently brought suit in the District Court against the city and the Board, alleging that, because of their race, they were being denied promotions in favor of less qualified blacks in violation of federal law. They argued that the city and the Board were making promotion decisions on the basis of race in reliance on the consent decrees, and that those decisions constituted impermissible racial discrimination. After trial, the District Court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss. It held that respondents were precluded from challenging employment decisions taken pursuant to the consent decrees, even though they had not been parties to the proceedings in which the decrees were entered. The Court of Appeals reversed, rejecting the "impermissible collateral attack" doctrine that immunizes parties to a consent decree from discrimination charges by nonparties for actions taken pursuant to the decree.

Held: Respondents are not precluded from challenging the employment decisions taken pursuant to the consent decrees. Pp. 490 U. S. 761-769.

(a) "[O]ne is not bound by a judgment in personam in a litigation in which he is not designated as a party or to which he has not been made a party by service of process." Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U. S. 32, 311 U. S. 40. Pp. 490 U. S. 761-762.

(b) Under ordinary application of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a party seeking a judgment binding on another cannot obligate that person to intervene; he must be joined. Rule 24, governing intervention, is cast in permissive terms. Rule 19(a) provides for mandatory

Page 490 U. S. 756

joinder in circumstances where a judgment rendered in the absence of a person may "leave . . . persons already parties subject to a substantial risk of incurring . . . inconsistent allegations," and Rule 19(b) sets forth the factors to be considered by a court in deciding whether to allow an action to proceed in the absence of an interested party. Joinder as a party, rather than knowledge of a lawsuit and an opportunity to intervene, is the method by which potential parties are subjected to the jurisdiction of the court and bound by a judgment or decree. The linchpin of the "impermissible collateral attack" doctrine -- the attribution of preclusive effect to a failure to intervene -- is inconsistent with Rules 19 and 24. Pp. 490 U. S. 763-765.

(c) Neither Penn-Central Merger and N & W Inclusion Cases, 389 U. S. 486, nor Provident Tradesmens Bank & Trust Co. v. Patterson, 390 U. S. 102, is authority for precluding respondents from challenging the actions taken under the consent decrees. Pp. 490 U. S. 765-766.

(d) Even if there were some merit to the argument that the need to join affected parties would be burdensome and ultimately discouraging to civil rights litigation, acceptance of that argument would require a rewriting, rather than an interpretation of, the relevant Federal Rules. In any event, the difficulties in identifying those who would be adversely affected by a decree arise from the nature of the relief sought, and not because of any choice between mandatory intervention and joinder. Plaintiffs who seek the aid of courts to alter employment policies, or the employer who might be subject to conflicting decrees, are best able to bear the burden of designating those who would be adversely affected if plaintiffs prevail. The alternative urged here does not eliminate the need for, or difficulty of, identifying persons who should be included in a lawsuit. It merely shifts that responsibility to less able shoulders. The system of joinder called for by the Federal Rules is not likely to produce more relitigation of issues than a converse rule, and best serves the interests involved in the run of litigated cases, including cases like the present one. Pp. 490 U. S. 766-768.

(e) With respect to the argument that the congressional policy favoring voluntary settlement of employment discrimination claims supports the "impermissible collateral attack" doctrine, it is essential to note what is meant by a "voluntary settlement." A voluntary settlement in the form of a consent decree between one group of employees and their employer cannot possibly "settle," voluntarily or otherwise, the conflicting claims of another group of employees who do not join in the agreement. Insofar as it may be easier to settle claims among a disparate group of affected persons if they are all before the court, joinder accomplishes

Page 490 U. S. 757

that result as well as would a regime of mandatory intervention. P. 490 U. S. 768.

833 F.2d 1492, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 490 U. S. 769.

Page 490 U. S. 758

Primary Holding

Someone who is not a party to an action cannot be bound by the judgment reached in it, even if that person or entity was aware of the action.


A consent decree resolved a discrimination claim brought by a group of African-American firefighters, and it required the City of Birmingham to implement an affirmative action program. White firefighters brought a reverse discrimination action after the consent decree was entered and the affirmative action program started. Their claim was dismissed on res judicata grounds because the court found that they had notice of the discrimination action and had chosen not to intervene.



  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Anthony M. Kennedy

There is a general rule that a party may not be bound by an in personam judgment in a matter into which that party has not been brought by designation as a party or by service of process. An objection to the consent decree may not be waived by failing to intervene in the earlier action. To ensure that a judgment is binding on another party, one of the parties that is already involved has the responsibility of joining that party to the litigation. The party outside litigation cannot be deemed obligated to intervene.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

The consent decree was binding on the City rather than the white firefighters. The City was properly fulfilling its obligations under the consent decree, and the white firefighters had no obligations under it.

Case Commentary

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19 covers the process of joinder. While some parties must be joined, others merely should be joined. They can enter on either side of the litigation.

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