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BROWN v. PHILADELPHIA HOUSING AUTHORITY

December 13, 2002

ERNEST & EUNICE BROWN, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
V.
PHILADELPHIA HOUSING AUTHORITY, ET AL. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marvin Katz, Senior United States District Judge.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

This case involves a Consent Decree entered into by the Plaintiffs and the Philadelphia Housing Authority almost three decades ago. Now before the court is Philadelphia Housing Authority's Motion to Vacate the Consent Decree because of intervening changes in federal law. As discussed below, the Motion is denied because there have been no federal statutory or regulatory changes that render the prospective enforcement of the Consent Decree inequitable. Defendants have also not demonstrated any conflicts between the Consent Decree and current federal statutes or regulations that would justify vacating the Decree in its entirety.

I. Background

On October 21, 1972, Plaintiffs filed a Complaint naming the Philadelphia Housing Authority ("PHA"), several PHA employees, and a Landlord and Tenant Officer of the Philadelphia Municipal Court as defendants in a civil rights suit. Plaintiffs sought to represent a class of individuals residing in PHA-owned properties. Plaintiffs alleged that they were being evicted or threatened with eviction by PHA without a prior hearing, in violation of their constitutional right to due process. Plaintiffs also claimed that Circulars published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD") also guaranteed tenants rights including the right to a grievance hearing before PHA sent lease termination notices. See HUD Circular RHM 7465.8, 7465.9 (eff. Feb. 22, 1971).

With the approval of the court, the parties entered into a Consent Decree ("Decree"or "Brown Decree") on June 14, 1974. The Decree stated that all tenants of PHA-owned buildings were entitled to the rights of HUD Circular RHM 7465.1, § 9(a).*fn1 To effectuate those rights, the Decree set forth a schedule of notices with which PHA must comply before terminating a lease or commencing eviction proceedings, as well as grievance hearing procedures.*fn2 On April 17, 1978, the court approved several amendments to the Brown Decree pertaining to the grievance hearing appeals process, personal property damage and other claims by tenants, escrow accounts for rent, and emergency grievance hearings. The Decree has not been modified in any way since 1978.

PHA has moved to vacate the Consent Decree in its entirety. PHA contends that significant changes in federal statutes and HUD regulations since the initiation of this litigation have rendered the Decree unnecessary and inconsistent with federal law. As support for their position, PHA cites HUD regulations issued in 1975 and amended in 1991 that replaced the Circulars underlying Plaintiff's Complaint.*fn3 PHA also cites a federal statute passed in 1983 that requires public housing authorities to implement grievance hearing procedures that are similar to terms of the Brown Decree. See 42 U.S.C. § 1437d(k). Pursuant to this statute, HUD issued regulations requiring notice before terminating a tenant's lease. See 24 C.F.R. § 966.4(1)(3) (1991). The notice must specify grounds for termination and inform the tenant of his or her right to reply, examine relevant documents, and request a hearing in accordance with local authority's grievance procedure. Id. § 966.4(1)(3)(ii). The tenancy may not be terminated until the grievance process has been completed. Id. § 966.4(1)(3)(iv). Finally, PHA contends that the Decree is inconsistent with federal law, which now allows public housing authorities to adopt streamlined procedures for violent and drug-related criminal activity evictions, under certain circumstances. See 42 U.S.C. § 1437d(k), (l).

II. Legal Standard

A district court may modify or vacate a consent decree pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), which provides in part:

On motion and upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party . . . from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for the following reasons: . . . (5) the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged, or a prior judgment upon which it was based has been reversed or otherwise vacated, or it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application; or (6) any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment.

In Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail, 502 U.S. 367, 378-79 (1992), the Supreme Court held that Federal Rule 60(b) did not codify the "grievous wrong" standard of United States v. Swift & Co., 286 U.S. 106, 119 (1932). In rejecting that standard, the Supreme Court gave courts greater flexibility to modify consent decrees in response to changing conditions. When a party seeks modification of a consent decree, that party bears the burden of showing that "a significant change in circumstances warrants revision of the decree." Rufo at 383. If that party meets its initial burden of showing changed factual circumstances or law, then a court "should consider whether the proposed modification is suitably tailored to the changed circumstance." Id. In considering whether to modify a decree, the court has less discretion when the decree conflicts with superseding federal law. The Supreme Court has declared, "A consent decree must of course be modified if as it later turns out, one or more of the obligations placed upon the parties has become impermissible under federal law." Rufo at 388.

Expanding on Rufo, the Third Circuit identified several factors that a court should consider before modifying a judgment under Rule 60(b). It cautioned, however, that "[a] court of equity cannot rely on a simple formula but must evaluate a number of potentially competing considerations to determine whether to modify or vacate an injunction entered by consent or otherwise." Bldg. & Constr. Trades Council v. NLRB, 64 F.3d 880, 888 (3d Cir. 1995) (denying a motion to modify a labor injunction). The factors identified were:

[T]he circumstances leading to the entry of the injunction and the nature of the conduct sought to be prevented; the length of time since entry of the injunction; whether the party subject to its terms has complied or attempted to comply in good faith with the injunction; and the likelihood that the conduct or conditions sought to be prevented will recur absent the injunction.

Id. at 888.

The central consideration for courts applying these factors, according to the Third Circuit, was "whether the modification is sought because changed conditions unforeseen by the parties have made compliance substantially more onerous or have made the decree unworkable." Id.

There is no need to hold an evidentiary hearing on Defendant's Motion to Vacate. According to the Third Circuit, district courts must hold an evidentiary hearing before modifying a consent decree by removing any of its requirements. See Mayberry v. Mahoney, 529 F.2d 332, 336 (3d Cir. 1976) (remanding to the district court to conduct an evidentiary hearing before relieving state officials from consent decree provisions that governed inmate housing). The Third Circuit has identified the limits of this holding:

To say that an evidentiary hearing must be held before a court decides to modify a consent decree does not, however, imply that such a hearing is required before a court refuses to modify a consent decree. A consent decree is, after ...

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