Appeals court upholds dissolve of consent degree in 'unusual' Florida case

By Robert Lawson | Oct 3, 2016

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - It doesn't pay to wait 15 years if you're trying to proceed with a motion on a consent decree, as Seyfarth Shaw LLP's Gerald Maatman points out.

A Florida judge recently dismissed such a motion after the city of Jacksonville stopped following a class action consent decree that made sure the city maintained a proportional amount of black and white firefighters. 

The city entered into the consent decree in 1971 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida with all current, past and future black firefighters in Jacksonville. This required the city to hire a proportionate amount of black and white firefighters. 

The city ceased to follow the decree without any official authority to do so in 1992. It wasn't until 2007 that the plaintiffs brought the issue to court, but the judge threw it out because of the delay and then dissolved the consent decree. The plaintiffs had sought to show cause of why the city ceased to follow the consent decree. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed the district court's decision on appeal in Coffey, et al. v. Braddy, et al. on Aug. 23.

Maatman said the case was quite strange. 

"It's a very unusual situation," he told Legal Newsline in a telephone interview. "It's unusual for the consent decree to fall by the wayside and not be policed."

Maatman said that is because there is usually a strict set of incentives to stay within the agreement, usually punishable if not followed, but that was not the case here. 

"There are usually reports and there are fees even because the decree is tantamount to a court order," he said. 

"For whatever reasons, the plaintiffs didn't actively monitor the situation. It wasn't until years later that they tried to take action. It's a pretty remarkable decision."

Maatman could only speculate on why the plaintiffs in this particular case waited so long to take action on the consent decree issue. 

"Who knows?" he said. "I would speculate that the group of plaintiffs may have retired or grown old, passed on… The case was so old that their law firms may have changed. 

"For whatever reasons, the issues fell to the wayside. Years and years went by. Every lawsuit has a docket number and this one, you can tell, goes way, way back."

Maatman said this ruling could have meaning in any number of industries in the private sector and any employment-related litigation. 

"It has a meaning for any employer, not just a public employer," he said. "It's a bellwether ruling for employment-related litigation, not just a fire department."  

The 11th Circuit held up the court opinion that the city should not have to defend itself against a claim that was delayed without a reasonable excuse.

That amount of time, the court reasoned, would make it impossible for the city to defend itself against such claims and for the court to make the required findings. 

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City of Jacksonville U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida Jacksonville Division

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