APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA D.C. Civil No. 34-73
Rosenn, Forman, and Garth, Circuit Judges.
This case has its genesis in a dispute over the disciplinary procedures used in the public schools of the City of Erie, Pennsylvania. The threshold issue before this court, however, is whether a district court has the power to modify its decree, entered with the consent of the parties before it, when one of those parties is unwilling to agree to the modification.
The individual plaintiffs commenced a class action on their own behalf as students and on behalf of all other students in the School District of Erie, Pennsylvania, against the Board of Education of the City of Erie ("the Board") and the Erie Education Association ("the Association"). They sought preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to prevent the defendants from utilizing certain procedures in the Master Contract between the Board and the Association*fn1 relating to the suspension, transfer, or expulsion of students in the school district. Specifically, the individual plaintiffs alleged in their complaint that the procedures set forth in Article V(H) of the Master Contract violated their rights under the fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution and section 1318 of the Pennsylvania School Code.*fn2
The students were joined as plaintiffs by the Erie Human Relations Commission ("the Commission") which sought to enjoin the defendants from suspending, transferring, or expelling students in the Erie School District pursuant to procedures which discriminated against black students solely because of their race in violation of their rights under the equal protection clause, the fourteenth amendment, and related statutes. The Commission's "Amendment to Complaint" specifically stated that the Commission did not object to the existence or utilization of Article V(H) of the Master Contract, but rather complained of the discriminatory manner in which the provisions of the article were administered.*fn3
On April 3, 1973, the district court entered an order temporarily restraining the defendants from utilizing the disciplinary procedures in the Master Contract and fixing April 18, 1973, as a tentative date for a hearing on the motion for preliminary injunction. On April 25, 1973, after a hearing, the court entered an order granting the preliminary injunction.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, acting as parens patriae to protect the constitutional rights of its citizens, intervened as party plaintiff on May 30, 1975. The intervenor's complaint sought to enjoin the defendants from utilizing the disciplinary procedures set forth in Article V of the Master Contract for the reasons set forth in the individual plaintiffs' complaints, and because those procedures allegedly violated sections 702 and 703 of the Pennsylvania Public Employee Relations Act*fn4 and the Pennsylvania constitution. In addition, the intervenor requested a final judgment declaring the disciplinary procedures to be invalid.
The suit involved, in essence, the procedures to be followed (1) when a student is transferred from his or her regularly assigned building to another building for disciplinary reasons, and (2) when a student is removed from a required class and there is no similar class within that building. After a stormy period of pre-trial maneuvers, discovery, and motions for summary judgment, the parties succeeded in negotiating a consent decree. On February 5, 1974, following a hearing on a motion to approve the consent decree, the district court entered an order approving the decree signed by all the parties. Stripped of its numerous paragraphs and exhibits, the decree basically provided for (1) notice to the students and parents of the proposed disciplinary action and the reasons therefor, and (2) hearings before various educational committees. Informal meetings and appeals from the decisions of the committees also were prescribed.
The district court retained jurisdiction of the action until all of the provisions of the decree were properly effectuated. Except for several motions implementing the consent decree procedures, the proceedings reposed in tranquillity for over a year. They erupted, however, on April 21, 1975, when the plaintiffs and the intervenor, alleging numerous violations of the consent decree, filed a joint motion requesting the district court to adjudge the defendants in contempt and to impose appropriate sanctions. The district court thereupon held a number of hearings on that motion. On July 1, 1975, the Association also moved the court to hold the School District in contempt and to impose appropriate sanctions. On August 4, 1975, the court entered an order directing, nunc pro tunc, that the action be maintained as a class action under rule 23(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and that the class consist of all students enrolled in the Erie School District as of February 5, 1974, and all others who had or would become similarly situated. The district court found the defendant school district in contempt on October 22, 1975.
In the meantime, the school district had filed a motion on August 8 to modify the consent decree, urging, in the words of the district court's memorandum on the motion, that "compliance with the consent decree gives the teachers power to suspend students from school without approval and consent of the building principal or the superintendent of schools or the directors of the school district [in] violation of the student's [ sic ] constitutional right to an education" and that "a suspension by anyone other than a principal or teacher in charge and continuance of such suspension for more than ten days is in violation of the student's [ sic ] due process rights as laid down in Goss v. Lopez [419 U.S. 565, 42 L. Ed. 2d 725, 95 S. Ct. 729 (1975)].
The district judge held a hearing on the motion to modify, and concluded that the consent decree was "to some extent out of step with the rights of students as enunciated by the Supreme Court in Goss v. Lopez. . ." Nevertheless, because the decree was not an ordinary judgment following adverse proceedings, but rather resulted from negotiations among and agreement by the parties, the court ...