Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail
Annotate this Case
502 U.S. 367 (1992)
OCTOBER TERM, 1991
RUFO, SHERIFF OF SUFFOLK COUNTY, ET AL. v.
INMATES OF SUFFOLK COUNTY JAIL ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIRST CIRCUIT
No. 90-954. Argued October 9, 1991-Decided January 15, 1992*
Years after the District Court held that conditions at the Suffolk County, Massachusetts, jail were constitutionally deficient, petitioner officials and respondent inmates entered into a consent decree providing for construction of a new jail that, among other things, would provide single occupancy cells for pretrial detainees. Work on the jail was delayed and, in the interim, the inmate population outpaced projections. While construction was still underway, petitioner sheriff moved to modify the decree to allow double bunking in a certain number of cells, thereby raising the jail's capacity. Relying on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)-which provides, inter alia, that "upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party ... from a ... judgment ... for the following reasons: ... (5) ... it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective operation"-the sheriff argued that modification was required by a change in law, this Court's postdecree decision in Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U. S. 520, and a change in fact, the increase in pretrial detainees. The District Court denied relief, holding that Rule 60(b)(5) codified the standard of United States v. Swift & Co., 286 U. S. 106, 119-"Nothing less than a clear showing of grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions should lead ... to [a] change [in] what was decreed after years of litigation with the consent of all concerned"and that a case for modification under this standard had not been made. The court also rejected the argument that Bell required modification of the decree; found that the increased pretrial detainee population was "neither new nor unforeseen"; declared that relief would be inappropriate even under a more flexible modification standard because separate cells for detainees were "perhaps the most important" element of the relief sought; and held that, even if the sheriff's double celling proposal met constitutional standards, allowing modification on that basis would undermine and discourage settlement of institutional cases. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
*Together with No. 90-1004, Rapone, Commissioner of Correction of Massachusetts v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail et al., also on certiorari to the same court.
1. The Swift "grievous wrong" standard does not apply to requests to modify consent decrees stemming from institutional reform litigation. That standard was formulated in the context of facts demonstrating that no genuine changes had occurred requiring modification of the decree in question, see id., at 115-116, and the Swift Court recognized that decrees involving the supervision of changing conduct or conditions may be revised if necessary to adapt to future events, id., at 114-115. Moreover, subsequent decisions have emphasized the need for flexibility to modify a decree if the circumstances, whether of law or fact, have changed or new ones have arisen. Thus, it cannot be concluded that Rule 60(b)(5) misread Swift and intended that decree modifications were in all cases to be governed by the "grievous wrong" standard. A less stringent standard is made all the more important by the recent upsurge in institutional reform litigation, where the extended life of decrees increases the likelihood that significant changes will occur. Furthermore, the experience of federal courts in implementing and modifying such decrees demonstrates that a flexible approach is often essential to achieving the goals of reform litigation, particularly the public's interest in the sound and efficient operations of its institutions. The contention that any rule other than the Swift standard would deter parties to such litigation from negotiating settlements and hence destroy the utility of consent decrees is unpersuasive. Obviously that would not be the case with respect to government officials. Moreover, plaintiffs will still wish to settle such cases, since, even if they litigate to conclusion and win, the resulting judgment may give them less than they hoped for, whereas settlement will avoid further litigation, will perhaps obtain more than would have been ordered without the local government's consent, and will eliminate the possibility of losing; and since the prospective effect of a judgment obtained after litigation will still be open to modification where deemed equitable under Rule 60(b). pp. 378-383.
2. Under the flexible standard adopted today, a party seeking modification of an institutional reform consent decree bears the burden of establishing that a significant change in facts or law warrants revision of the decree and that the proposed modification is suitably tailored to the changed circumstances. Pp. 383-393.
(a) Modification may be warranted when changed factual conditions make compliance with the decree substantially more onerous, when the decree proves to be unworkable because of unforeseen obstacles, or when enforcement of the decree without modification would be detrimental to the public interest. Where a party relies upon events that actually were anticipated at the time it entered into a decree, modifica-