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Salazar v. District of Columbia

August 5, 2010

OSCAR SALAZAR, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gladys Kessler United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiffs are a class of poor children who are eligible for Medicaid services in the District of Columbia. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, they initiated this action almost two decades ago in order to ensure that Defendants provide those services. During the course of this long and difficult litigation, parties were able to resolve their dispute in the form of a Consent Decree agreed to in 1999. For the past ten years, the Court has overseen Defendants' compliance with the terms of that Consent Decree.

This matter is now before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Terminate Consent Decree and Subsequent Remedial Orders and to Dismiss the Case ("Defs.' Mot.") [Dkt. Nos. 1456, 1481]. Upon consideration of the Motion, Opposition, Reply, numerous supplemental briefs and surreplies, and the entire record herein, and for the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion is denied as to the private right of action issue.

I. BACKGROUND

Prior opinions have described in some detail the lengthy and complicated history of this case. See, e.g., Salazar v. District of Columbia, 123 F. Supp. 2d 8 (D.D.C. 2000); Salazar v. District of Columbia, 954 F. Supp. 278 (D.D.C. 1996) ("Salazar I"). The key pieces of the narrative are set forth herein.

In their Complaint, Plaintiffs brought seven claims against the District of Columbia.*fn1 Complaint ¶¶ 103-25. One of Plaintiffs' most far-reaching claims was that Defendants had failed to furnish "early and periodic screening, diagnostic, and treatment" ("EPSDT") services, as mandated by the Medicaid program, 42 U.S.C. § 1396a(a)(43). Complaint ¶¶ 120-22. Such a failure, they claim, is actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

In 1994, Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, to whom the case was originally assigned, ruled that Plaintiffs were permitted to bring six of the seven Medicaid claims under § 1983. See Wellington v. District of Columbia, 851 F. Supp. 1, 3-6 (D.D.C. 1994).*fn2 The Court held that "Section 1983 provides a private remedy for all of the Title XIX provisions except those in [P]laintiffs' third claim.

All of [P]laintiffs['] Title XIX claims except Claim III are sufficient to withstand the motion to dismiss." Id. at 6.

On July 1, 1994, the case was transferred to this Court [Dkt. No. 74]. After extensive pre-trial litigation, a seven-day bench trial was held in 1996, to resolve the dispute over Plaintiffs' EPSDT claim, as well as three additional claims. At the conclusion of the trial, a lengthy opinion set forth the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law. Plaintiffs prevailed, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, on each of the four claims that went to trial.*fn3 After the Court entered remedial orders to effectuate this ruling, Defendants appealed the judgment.

While the case was proceeding before our Court of Appeals, parties engaged in settlement negotiations. On September 23, 1998, those negotiations produced a proposed Settlement Order [Dkt. No. 624]. The next day, parties asked the Court of Appeals to remove the case from its calendar and requested remand back to this Court. On January 22, 1999, the Settlement Order was approved by the Court. Order Modifying the Amended Remedial Order of May 6, 1997 and Vacating the Order of March 27, 1997 ("Settlement Order") [Dkt. No. 663]. Since that time, this agreement has governed the case. There have been various consensual amendments made to the Settlement Order, as well as Court Orders resolving disputes over Defendants' compliance with the Order's requirements.

In March of 2009, the District of Columbia filed the instant Motion.*fn4 In it, Defendants argue, inter alia, that Plaintiffs have no private right of action to enforce the EPSDT provisions under § 1983, and, even if they do, Defendants have achieved compliance with federal law governing provision of such services. Defs.' Mot. at 1-2. On May 26, 2009, the Court concluded, at the suggestion of Defendants, that "the most efficient way to resolve the Defendant[s'] pending Motion" would be to first consider the discrete legal question of whether or not Plaintiffs have a private right of action to enforce the EPSDT provisions. Order (May 26, 2009) [Dkt. No. 1489]. Accordingly, briefing was conducted on only this legal issue, and was completed on September 18, 2009.

II. ANALYSIS

Defendants argue that Rule 60(b) provides grounds for vacating the decision. Their chief argument is that a 2002 Supreme Court decision, Gonzaga v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273 (2002), represents an intervening change in law that alters the legal landscape on which the Settlement Order rests. Such a significant change, they maintain, makes Rule 60(b) an appropriate vehicle for re-arguing whether Plaintiffs have a private right of action to enforce the EPSDT provisions of Medicaid, a point previously decided in favor of Plaintiffs. See Wellington, 851 F. Supp. at 6.

Rule 60(b) permits a party to seek relief from a "final judgment, order, or proceeding" for various reasons. Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b). Defendants seek relief under 60(b)(5) and (6). Defs.' Mot. at 5. Rule 60(b)(5) allows a court to grant relief where "the judgment has been satisfied, released or discharged; it is based on an earlier judgment that has been reversed or vacated; or applying it prospectively is no longer equitable." Rule 60(b)(6) is a catch-all provision that permits a court to grant relief for "any other reason that justifies relief." The party seeking modification of a consent decree bears the burden of showing that "a significant change in circumstances" warrants relief. Rufo v. Inmates of the Suffolk County Jail, 502 U.S. 367, 383 (1992).

"Modification is an extraordinary remedy, as would be any device which allows a party--even a municipality--to escape commitments voluntarily made and solemnized by a court decree." Twelve John Does v. District of Columbia, 861 F.2d 295, 298 (D.C. Cir. 1988) (discussing Rule 60(b)(5)). The district court has discretion to grant or deny a motion brought under Rule 60(b). See id.; see also United Mine Workers of Am. 1974 Pension v. Pittston Co., 984 F.2d 469, 476 (D.C. Cir. 1993).

A. Defendants Are Time-Barred from Seeking Rule 60(b) Relief

A party seeking relief under Rule 60(b)(5) or (6) must do so "within a reasonable time." Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(c)(1). This standard must be applied to the specific facts of each case, after considering "whether the party opposing the motion has been prejudiced by the delay in seeking relief and . . . whether the moving party had some good reason for his failure to take appropriate action sooner." 11 Charles A. Wright, et al., Federal Practice and Procedure, § 2866 (2d ed. 2009); see also Expeditions Unlimited Aquatic Enterprises, Inc. v. Smithsonian Inst., 500 F.2d 808, 810 (D.C. Cir. 1974); Evans v. Fenty, Civ. No. 76-0293, 2010 WL 1337641, at *27 (D.D.C. Apr. 7, 2010) ("Factors to consider include 'the length of the delay, the explanations for the delay, the prejudice to the opposing party caused by the delay and the circumstances warranting relief.'") (citations omitted). In this case, Defendants filed their Motion in March of 2009. The Supreme Court issued its opinion in Gonzaga--the asserted basis for Defendants' private right of action argument--in June of 2002. Nearly seven years separate the two dates.

Defendants argue that ongoing enforcement of the decree in the intervening time has minimized actual prejudice to the Plaintiffs. Defs.' Reply to Pls.' Partial Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. at 6-7 ("Defs.' Reply") [Dkt. No. 1503]; cf. Order (May 26, 2009) (finding no prejudice to Plaintiff in bifurcating consideration of Defendants' Motion to Terminate because "all parts of the consent decree [would] remain in order"). That may well be true to some extent. However, underlying the limitation on Rule 60(b) relief are the important interests of finality and repose. See Randall v. Merrill Lynch, 820 F.2d 1317 (D.C. Cir. 1987) (noting that 60(b) is "a tool which trial courts are to use sparingly," as it is the "mechanism by which courts temper the finality of judgments with the necessity to distribute justice"); Summers v. Howard Univ., 374 F.3d 1188, 1193 (D.C. Cir. 2004) ("Under Rule 60(b), a court must balance the interest in justice with the interest in protecting the finality of judgments."). Allowing Defendants to file a motion that strikes at the legal foundation of a ten-year-old decree, based on an issue decided seven years ago, surely prejudices Plaintiffs' interests in finality and repose.

Courts in this Circuit have found far shorter delays to be unreasonable. See, e.g., Gilmore v. Hinman, 191 F.2d 652, 652-53 (D.C. Cir. 1951) (concluding that a 60(b) motion filed 16 months after final judgment was not filed within a reasonable time); Karim-Panahi v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Auth., Civ. No. 08-7093, 2008 WL 5460693, at *1 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (finding no abuse of discretion where district court denied motion as untimely because filed after 18 months and without justification); see also Emily Q. v. Shrewy, 203 Fed. Appx. 35 (9th Cir. 2006) (affirming district court denial of 60(b) motion on timeliness grounds, as Defendant in an institutional-reform case waited four years before making argument based on Gonzaga) (unpublished).

Defendants argue that because the "priorities of public officials" overseeing the litigation for the District of Columbia may change from one municipal administration to another, a decision not to challenge a consent decree entered into by an earlier administration should not prevent the current administration from doing so. Defs.' Reply at 4-6. In this particular case, the current administration took office in January of 2007. See Elected Officials, http://www.grc.dc.gov/grc/cwp/view,a,1203,q,447121,pm, 1,grcNav_GID,1424,,grcNav_GID,1421.asp. The current Attorney General assumed his position in November of 2008, after serving as Interim Attorney General since January of 2008 and as General Counsel to the Mayor since January of 2007. See OAG: AG Bio - Peter Nickles, http://occ.dc.gov/occ/cwp/view,a,3,q,638711.asp. Thus, over two years passed between this administration's initial handling of the case and its decision to file a 60(b) Motion in March of 2009 based on Gonzaga. Defendants' asserted excuse is hardly compelling and does not justify such a delay in filing.

Defendants come perilously close to asserting that the finality of a case involving a municipality in an institutional-reform context depends upon the policies and tenure of the administration litigating it at any given time. See Defs.' Reply at 4-5 ("The 'reason' for the asserted 'delay' goes to the heart of the democratic process--the priorities of public officials responsible for advancing their conceptions of the public interest. While one administration did not raise the issue, a different administration, elected by the citizens of the District of Columbia well after the Gonzaga decision, made the decision to raise this argument in a filing that simultaneously asserts that the District is in compliance with the law."). To read the Rule's "reasonable time" requirement to allow a complete change of position with each election of a new administration would completely undermine the interests of finality and repose that the Rule is designed to protect.*fn5

Defendants urge the Court to consider the institutional-reform context of the litigation and approach the issue with greater flexibility. Rufo, they maintain, articulates a public interest in allowing public officials in institutional-reform cases to focus on "the sound and efficient operation of [the public's] institutions," Rufo, 502 U.S. at 381. Defs.' Reply at 7-8. Therefore, the delay in filing--as well as continued enforcement of the Settlement Order--has actually prejudiced the District of Columbia by prohibiting it from running its programs as it sees fit. Id. at 8.

Tellingly, no such interpretation of the "reasonable time" requirement is even discussed, no less adopted, in Horne v. Flores, 129 S.Ct. 2579 (2009), a recent Supreme Court case addressing this issue, or in any other cases relied on by Defendants. In Horne, the Supreme Court observed that in "institutional reform litigation," Rule 60(b)(5) "serves a particularly important function." 129 S.Ct. at 2593. The Rule allows courts to re-examine judgments or orders that "often raise sensitive federalism concerns." Id. Accordingly, the Horne Court took care to emphasize its earlier holding in Rufo that courts should take a "flexible approach" to Rule 60(b)(5) motions addressing consent decrees. Id. at 2594-95. However, the Supreme Court also stated that "[i]t goes without saying that federal courts must vigilantly enforce federal law and must not hesitate in awarding necessary relief." Id. at 2595. The Horne Court went on to explain that the appropriate inquiry under Rufo "takes the original judgment as a given and asks only whether 'a significant change either in factual conditions or in law' renders continued enforcement of the judgment 'detrimental to the public interest.'" Id. at 2596-97.

Defendants cite two appellate decisions from other circuits that have applied Rufo's "flexible approach" in considering motions to vacate. In Shakman v. City of Chicago, 426 F.3d 925 (7th Cir. 2005), the Seventh Circuit held that it was reversible error for a district court not to factor in the "public nature of the litigation in reaching its conclusion that the City's motion was untimely." Id. at 933-34. More recently, the Sixth Circuit upheld a district court's ruling that a Rule 60(b) motion brought 30 years late was timely, because it appropriately considered more than simply the amount of time which had passed--it looked as ...


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