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Labor/Community Strategy Center v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

May 5, 2009


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California Terry J. Hatter, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. CV-94-05936-TJH.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Silverman, Circuit Judge


Argued and Submitted May 12, 2008 -- Pasadena, California

Before: Mary M. Schroeder, Barry G. Silverman, and Marsha S. Berzon, Circuit Judges.

Opinion by Judge Silverman; Dissent by Judge Berzon


This appeal arises after fourteen years of litigation concerning public transit in Los Angeles County. In 1994, the Labor/ Community Strategy Center and other Los Angeles County community organizations and local residents, known collecively as the "Bus Riders Union" or "BRU," brought a civil rights class action against the County's Metropolitan Transit Authority, charging the MTA with unlawfully discriminating against "inner-city and transit dependent bus riders" in its allocation of public transportation resources. The case did not go to trial; rather, in 1996, the parties agreed to, and the district court approved, a consent decree that committed MTA to implementing "a detailed plan to improve bus service." See Labor/Community Strategy Ctr. v. L.A. County Metro. Trans. Auth., 263 F.3d 1041, 1043 (9th Cir. 2001) ("Labor/ Community"). The district court's jurisdiction over the decree was explicitly set to expire in ten years.

Shortly before the tenth anniversary of the decree, BRU moved to extend the duration of the decree on the grounds that MTA had allegedly failed to comply with the decree's overcrowding provisions. BRU also sought civil contempt sanctions against MTA for MTA's alleged failure to comply with a 2004 remedial order. Ruling that MTA had substantially complied with the decree, the district court denied BRU's motion seeking these remedies and allowed the decree to expire.

We hold today that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying BRU's motion to extend the decree and for contempt sanctions. We therefore affirm the district court's decision in all respects.

I. Background

A. The Underlying Lawsuit

In 1994, BRU filed a class action under several federal civil rights statutes,*fn1 charging MTA with violating the Fourteenth Amendment by discriminating against low income and minority residents of Los Angeles County. The alleged discrimination included expending a disproportionately high share of its resources on commuter rail services, whose primary users were wealthy non-minorities, and a disproportionately low share on bus services, whose main patrons were low income and minority residents.*fn2

In March 1995, the district court certified a plaintiff class of "[a]ll poor minority and other riders of MTA buses who are denied equal opportunity to receive transportation services because of the MTA's operation of a discriminatory mass transportation system." On the eve of trial the parties submitted a proposed consent decree, which the district court approved on October 29, 1996. See Labor/Community, 263 F.3d at 1043.

B. The Consent Decree

The decree committed MTA to a wide array of improvements in its bus services, including instituting new bus lines to and from centers of employment, education, and health care in the county; enhancing security on buses; improving bus shelters; and maintaining its fares at specific levels. BRU's present appeal does not directly concern those aspects of the decree.

BRU does contest MTA's compliance with Section II.A of the decree, which committed MTA to "[r]educing [o]vercrowding [b]y [a]dding [n]ew [s]ervice." The decree did not set out a specific number of buses or hours of service the MTA needed to add to achieve appropriate reductions in overcrowding. Instead, the decree set forth specific "load factor targets," to be met by specific dates, and provided MTA with "discretion in determining how the targets w[ould] be met." A "load factor" is "a numerical representation of the number of people standing [and sitting] on a bus in relation to the number of seats." Labor/Community, 263 F.3d at 1044 n.1. For example, a forty-seat bus which contained forty-eight passengers would have a load factor of 1.2. Under the terms of the decree, MTA was required to reduce the maximum load factor for each relevant bus line to 1.35 by December 31, 1997, 1.25 by June 30, 2000, and 1.2 by June 30, 2002.

In addition to these substantive provisions, the decree included a number of procedural mechanisms designed to assure implementation and enforcement. Four are relevant to this appeal.

First, the decree created a Joint Working Group, composed of representatives from BRU and MTA. The purpose of the Working Group was to "foster cooperation in the implementation" of the decree and to resolve disputes between the parties.

Second, Section V of the decree established the position of "Special Master," "to facilitate the resolution of disputes arising under any provision of this Consent Decree" that could not be settled by the Working Group. The parties agreed that Donald T. Bliss would serve as the initial Special Master.

Third, Section VI, entitled "Modification of the Consent Decree," set forth the conditions under which the decree may be modified. Under Section VI, a party seeking modification must show "that a significant change in circumstances warrants revision of the Consent Decree, and that the proposed revision or revisions are suitably tailored to the changed circumstances."

Finally, Section VIII provided that the "District Court shall retain jurisdiction over this litigation for ten years from the date of approval of this Consent Decree in order to monitor compliance with this Consent Decree." The court approved the decree on October 29, 1996, so the court's obligatory retention of jurisdiction was set to terminate on October 29, 2006. Section VIII stated further that:

At the end of seven years, MTA may file a motion with the District Court to terminate the Consent Decree and the Court shall grant such motion if MTA shows to the Court's satisfaction that it has substantially complied with the Consent Decree and that it has in place a service plan that will enable continued adherence to the principles and objective of the Consent Decree during the five years subsequent to the termination of this Consent Decree.

C. The 1999 and 2004 Orders

In September 1998, the members of the Working Group agreed that on seventy-five out of the seventy-nine bus lines monitored, MTA had not met the initial load factor target of 1.35 by the December 31, 1997 deadline. See Labor/ Community, 263 F.3d at 1046. As the parties' representatives could not agree on a remedial plan to address this failure, and also to ensure that MTA would meet the second target of 1.25 by June 30, 2000, the Special Master issued an order on March 6, 1999 mandating a plan which, as later revised, required, among other things, that MTA acquire 379 additional buses. Id. at 1047.

MTA sought review of the 1999 Order, questioning both the Special Master's authority to impose it and the validity of the factual findings and interpretation of the decree on which it was premised. Id. The district court upheld the Special Master's findings regarding the agency's noncompliance with the 1997 1.35 load factor target as not clearly erroneous, and affirmed the 1999 Order as to the 248 buses that MTA was required to purchase to meet the 1997 target. At the same time, the district court declared it "too early to determine whether the MTA is incapable of meeting" the 2000 load factor target, so it vacated the Special Master's Order with regard to the remaining additional buses and directed the Special Master to reevaluate the need for those buses once more upto-date data were available. We affirmed the district court's order in Labor/Community. 263 F.3d at 1051.

On January 12, 2004, the Special Master promulgated another order addressing measures necessary for MTA to achieve compliance with the load factor targets. The "Final Order on Remedial Service Plan to Meet 1.25 and 1.2 Load Factor Target Requirements" specified that "[i]n order to achieve compliance with the Consent Decree and to meet and maintain the 1.2 [load factor target]," MTA was required to provide the additional buses and service hours called for by the Working Group. The Order permitted MTA to meet some of the additional requirements through changes to existing services and more efficient scheduling of its existing fleet. But it required MTA to purchase "the vehicular equivalent of 145 new 40-seat expansion buses" and to provide "an additional 290,145 annual in-service hours." The Final Order stated that providing this expanded service, along with the other improvements specified, would constitute "substantial compliance with the load factor targets of the Consent Decree and create a presumption that [its] expansion bus procurement requirements . . . have been met."

D. The District Court's Ruling

In February 2006, the Special Master resigned. Although BRU and MTA agreed on a replacement, the district court did not appoint a new Special Master, citing the limited "amount of time remaining before the Court is divested of jurisdiction over the . . . Decree." The court indicated, however, that if its "jurisdiction is extended, it will revisit this issue."*fn3

After the district court declined to appoint a new Special Master, BRU filed motions to extend the duration of the decree and for contempt sanctions.*fn4 The district court denied both. It concluded that contempt sanctions were inappropriate because BRU had failed to satisfy its burden of "establish[-ing], by clear and convincing evidence, that MTA either failed to substantially comply with the Final Order or failed to take all reasonable steps to insure compliance with the Final Order." On the contrary, the court held, "it is clear that MTA has substantially complied, and taken all reasonable steps within its power to insure compliance, with the Final Order."

Moreover, the district court stated, extension of the decree was unnecessary because the "Decree did not require perfection," and "[d]espite an increasing ridership, increasing traffic congestion and fiscal constraints, MTA has substantially complied with the Consent Decree while maintaining fares at reasonable levels." The district court concluded that the decree "has served its purpose and will not be extended." BRU timely appealed.

II. Standard of Review

We review a district court's interpretation of a consent decree de novo, with "deference . . . based on the court's extensive oversight of the decree from the commencement of the litigation to the current appeal." Nehmer v. U.S. Dep't of Veterans Affairs, 494 F.3d 846, 855 (9th Cir. 2007). Both a district court's refusal to extend a consent decree and its denial of a motion for contempt are reviewed for abuse of discretion. See Thompson v. U.S. Dep't of Hous. & Urban Dev., 404 F.3d 821, 827 (4th Cir. 2005); Hallett v. Morgan, 296 F.3d 732, 749 (9th Cir. 2002); David C. v. Leavitt, 242 F.3d 1206, 1210 (10th Cir. 2001); Holland v. N.J. Dep't of Corr., 246 F.3d 267, 281 (3d Cir. 2001); Vanguards of Cleveland v. City of Cleveland, 23 F.3d 1013, 1017 (6th Cir. 1994). A ...

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