Reversing a decision by the District Court for the District of Idaho, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that, in deciding whether to vacate a consent decree, the defendant has the burden of proving with a preponderance of the evidence that it has substantially complied with the decree as a whole. The consent decree at issue involved an agreement by state government officials to provide indigent children with emotional and mental disabilities with more adequate care. Jeff D. v. Otter, No. No. 07–36009, 2011 WL 2023251 (9th Cir. May 5, 2011).
In 1980, Jeff D., representing “a class of indigent Idaho children suffering from severe emotional and mental disabilities,” sought declaratory and injunctive relief for a claim that the governor and state officials were providing inadequate care, in violation of the U.S. and Idaho Constitutions, as well as federal and state laws. Two consent decrees followed (1983 and 1990), and after continued allegations of non-compliance, a third consent decree in 1998 required the defendants to develop a compliance plan. In 2001, this plan became an “Implementation Plan,” which included a series of “Action Items” for compliance.
In 2006, the parties had a hearing in which the District Court was to determine the Action Items with which the defendants had not complied. The Court found that the plaintiffs had provided clear and convincing evidence that the defendants had not complied with 21 of 252 Action Items, even though they had alleged non-compliance with many more. In 2007, the Court found that the defendants had come into substantial compliance with those Action Items and vacated the decrees. The plaintiffs appealed this decision, arguing that the “clear and convincing evidence” standard, which applies to civil contempt, was not the correct one in assessing compliance, and objecting to the Court’s decision to consider only the Action Items in determining compliance.
The Court of Appeals “review[ed] de novo, as a question of law, the district court’s interpretation of a consent decree.” While granting the District Court significant deference, it found the vacatur to be in error. The parties agreed that the standard for the consent decrees was “substantial compliance.” Applying Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5), the Court of Appeals held that the defendants “bear the burden of proving that they have met the Rule’s requirements” (relying on Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail, 502 U.S. 367, 383, 112 S.Ct. 748 (1992); Jeff D. v. Kempthorne, 365 F.3d 844 (9th Cir. 2004)).
It found that, in contrast to the plaintiffs’ having to prove with clear and convincing evidence that one or more defendants did not comply, the defendants must establish substantial compliance by a preponderance of the evidence. The Circuit Court observed that the District Court had incorrectly addressed the question of whether to vacate the consent decree as if it were considering only the question of whether any of the defendants should be held in contempt. The Court of Appeals also noted the difficulty of determining substantial compliance with some of the vaguer Action Items under the District Court’s burden and standard of proof.
In addition, the Circuit Court found that substantial compliance is to be measured not only by compliance with each Action Item, but also “with the larger purposes of the decrees.” Thus, it found that the District Court erred in not considering the whole of the Implementation Plan in determining substantial compliance. Thus, because of the District Court’s incorrect standard of proof and limitation to the Action Items, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision to vacate and remanded