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United States v. Fletcher

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

February 6, 2018

CYNTHIA FLETCHER, A minor, by Rev. Artis Fletcher, as next friend, and Gloria Jean Barnes and David Barnes, minors, by Rev. Theotis Smith, as next friend, suing in their own behalf and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Intervenor Plaintiff - Appellant

         Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi

          Before WIENER, ELROD, and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.

          WIENER, Circuit Judge

         Since 1970, the Simpson County School District ("the District") has been under a consent decree to monitor the District's efforts to desegregate its school system. Students attending District schools ("the Intervenors") intervened in the litigation in 1982, contending that the District had not properly complied with the consent decree. In 2015, the District moved for a finding of unitary status in the area of faculty and staff employment. The Intervenors objected, and after a hearing, the district court granted unitary status. The Intervenors now appeal, and we affirm.

         I. Facts and Proceedings

         In July 1970, the United States sued the State of Mississippi and several of its school districts, including the District, alleging that they operated school systems that were segregated by race. In August 1970, the district court enjoined the District from discriminating based on race, and outlined various procedures designed to end segregation in the District. The 1970 order addressed specific areas: faculty and staff assignments, student transfers, transportation, school construction and site selection, and extracurricular activities.

         In 1982, the Intervenors filed a class action complaint against the District for failing to comply with the 1970 order. In 1983, the district court entered another decree, outlining further procedures for the District. These included procedures aimed at employment practices, viz., requiring the District to advertise available positions, use standard forms and objective rating criteria to review and score applications, and offer positions to the highest-scoring applicant regardless of race. The 1983 decree also required that the District notify the United States and Intervenors of any proposed change to employment procedures.[1] In 2001, the District moved for unitary status. The Intervenors did not respond, and the United States objected only in the area of faculty and staff assignments. The district court denied unitary status in that area, but granted unitary status in all other areas.[2]

         In 2011, the court entered another consent decree expanding on the required employment procedures. Specifically, the 2011 decree required that (1) the District advertise vacant positions for at least three weeks and post them in specified locations, (2) the District maintain efforts to increase the number of qualified African-American applicants, (3) the District's HR Director score applicants using objective criteria and a standard scoring form(4)the principal or superintendent interview the highest-scoring applicants, [3] (5)the interviewers complete an interview form (attached to the decree) with numerical scores for various criteria, and (6) the District offer the position to the candidate with the highest combined pre- and post-interview scores.

         The decree generally required the District to interview candidates with high initial scores. If the District declined to interview an applicant with a higher score than another applicant selected for an interview, the principal or Superintendent had to state in writing why he or she did not interview such applicant. The only reasons permitted by the decree for declining to interview such an applicant were: (1) the applicant declined the interview, (2) the District could not contact the applicant after a prescribed number of attempts, (3) based on information disclosed in a prior interview, reference check, background, or misrepresentation on an application, the applicant "was deemed unsuitable for employment[, ]" or (4) "the applicant was terminated or non-renewed for good cause from any previous employment position."

         The District could decline to offer the position to the highest-scoring applicant only "if a legitimate negative reason exists not to hire the applicant." The consent decree gave examples of such negative reasons: (1) negative comments from references, (2) false information on an application, (3) failure to satisfy background check requirements, or (4) termination or non-renewal from a previous position. The decree further specified that "[t]he District may not, however, fail to hire the highest overall-rated applicant only because it favors a lower-rated applicant." If the District wanted to hire a lower-scoring applicant, it had to notify the United States and the Intervenors, who had the opportunity to object.[4]

         In 2012, the district court granted the United States' motion to enjoin the District from violating the 2011 decree, on the grounds that the District had hired several non-highest-scoring applicants without proper notice to the United States. In 2013, the District moved for unitary status with respect to faculty and staff assignments. The United States did not object, but the Intervenors did, and the district court held a two-day hearing. The court received over five hundred objections from the community, but many of these were generic and did not state details. At the hearing, some objectors who had been denied employment or promotion by the District testified. In April 2014, the district court denied unitary status, citing use of modified interview guides and ranking forms without notice of the proposed change as an example of the District's non-compliance. The district court also extended the 2011 decree to March 15, 2015. The Intervenors appealed that decision, challenging some of the court's factual findings. That appeal was dismissed for lack of standing.[5]

         In September 2015, the District yet again moved for unitary status. This time there were approximately sixty-five objections, many of which were merely generic.[6] The district court held another two-day hearing in 2016, and granted the motion for unitary status, after considering the testimony from both the 2014 and the 2016 hearings. The Intervenors now appeal.

         II. Standard of Review

         This court reviews a finding that a school district is unitary for clear error.[7] Under that standard, we will reverse only if we have a "definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed."[8] But a court reviewing for clear error may not reverse the district's court finding if it is plausible in light of the entire record.[9] If the finding is plausible in light of the record, we may not reverse even if, "had [we] been sitting as the trier of fact, [we] would have weighed the evidence differently."[10] Neither will we "discount 'the district court's reasonable factual inferences from the evidence.'"[11]

         "The burden of showing that the findings of a district court are clearly erroneous is heavier if credibility of witnesses is a factor in the district court's determination."[12] "When findings are based on determinations regarding the credibility of witnesses, [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure] 52(a) demands even greater deference to the trial court's findings; for only the trial judge can be aware of the variations in demeanor and tone of voice that bear so heavily on the listener's understanding of and belief in what is said."[13]

         III. Discussion

         "The ultimate inquiry in determining whether a school district is unitary is whether (1) the school district has complied in good faith with desegregation orders for a reasonable amount of time, and (2) the school district has eliminated the vestiges of prior de jure segregation to the extent practicable."[14]This standard also applies when assessing whether a school district is unitary in employment practices.[15]

         The Intervenors focus on individual employment decisions-that is, the District's decisions to interview, hire, promote, or fire specified persons- whose treatment they contend shows violations of the consent decree and remnants of de jure segregation. The district court held that none of these individual employment decisions showed that the District failed to comply with the consent decree or that the District acted in bad faith. The court also held that the employment decisions did not demonstrate remnants of de jure segregation.

         A. The District's Good Faith Compliance With The Consent Decree

         This court views the district court's finding that a school district has complied with a desegregation order in good faith in light of the entire record.[16]In evaluating unitary status, "a court should give particular attention to the school system's record of compliance."[17] The record of good faith compliance must be "consistent[]."[18]

         The Intervenors presented hundreds of pages of evidence relating to more than twenty employment-related decisions in the District over the past several years. The district court heard four days of testimony, at two different fairness hearings, from District officials and individuals who had applied for employment or promotion in the District. The Intervenors urge that various employment decisions show that the District failed to strictly follow the ...

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