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Third-Party Prisoners Have Standing to Enforce Consent Decree; ADOC Bound By Decree Until Modified

Third-Party Prisoners Have Standing to Enforce Consent Decree; ADOC Bound
By Decree Until Modified

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held Arizona Prisoners not parties to a
1973 consent decree had standing to enforce that decree, and the Arizona
Department of Corrections (ADOC) is bound by the decree until modified by
a court. At issue is the ADOC revising mail regulations that govern
receipt of Christmas Packages, which was required under the decree. 256
prisoners brought action to enforce the decree, and the district court
granted the prisoners relief. The ADOC appealed.

The Ninth Circuit held the prisoners had standing to enforce the consent
decree. Although they were not parties to the original litigation, they
were intended third party beneficiaries who may enforce an agreement,
under Federal R. Civ. P. 71. Next, the court held that ADOC was bound by
the consent decree, for it failed to modify the decree under FED. R. Civ.
P 60. Although the Christmas Package may be overly broad and no
constitutional right to same exists, the ADOC included the provision in
the decree. Thus, until the district court modifies that decree upon the
filing of a rule 60 motion, the ADOC is bound by the decree. The court
affirmed the district court's ruling. See: Hook v. State of Arizona Dept.
of Corrections, 972 F.2d 1012 (9th Cir. 1992).

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Related legal case

Hook v. State of Arizona Dept. of Corrections

Hook v. Arizona, 972 F.2d 1012 (9th Cir. 07/23/1992)


[2] No. 91-15052

[3] 972 F.2d 1012

[4] filed: July 23, 1992.


[6] Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Arizona. D.C. No. CV-73-00097-CAM. C.A. Muecke, District Judge, Presiding.

[7] Rebecca Berch, Assistant Attorney General, Phoenix, Arizona, for the defendants-appellants.

[8] Scott F. Frerichs, Treon, Strick, Lucia & Aguirre, Phoenix, Arizona, for the plaintiffs-appellees.

[9] Before: Cynthia Holcomb Hall and Charles Wiggins, Circuit Judges, and Judith N. Keep*fn* , Chief District Judge. Opinion by Judge Wiggins.

[10] Author: Wiggins

[11] WIGGINS, Circuit Judge:


[13] Defendants/Appellants, including the Arizona Department of Corrections, appeal the district court's grant of an injunction against the enforcement of certain prison regulations. Plaintiffs/Appellees, current inmates, argue that the injunction was appropriate because the regulations conflict with an earlier consent decree between the Arizona Department of Corrections and certain named inmates. The Department of Corrections contends that the injunction is improper because (1) the Department is no longer bound by the earlier consent decree and (2) the current inmates lack standing to enforce the consent decree. This court has jurisdiction over the timely appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(1) (1988).


[15] In 1973, Hook and ten other inmates filed a suit alleging violations of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights in conjunction with the Department of Correction's mail policies. This suit was never certified as a class action. Among other things, the inmates claimed they had constitutional rights to subscribe to Playboy, to send outgoing letters to public judicial officers, to send letters to persons not on approved mailing lists, and to receive letters from more than ten persons. The inmates' complaint did not specifically mention the right to receive Christmas packages. Indeed, the complaint only included Christmas packages to the extent it could be construed to address prison mail regulations in general.

[16] In resolving the dispute, the Department of Corrections presented a comprehensive scheme of mail regulations as a proposed consent decree. This comprehensive scheme included a provision allowing inmates to receive three twenty-five pound Christmas food packages. The inmates and the court accepted these regulations as the consent decree, and the case was closed. In 1974, the consent decree was amended to allow a minor change unrelated to this case. Since that 1974 modification, the case remained closed until the present dispute.

[17] In 1982, nine years after the entry of the original consent decree, the Department wrote to the district court and informed the court of its "intention to adopt its new [prison] mail regulations in compliance with Arizona's Administrative Procedure Act . . . rather than attempt[ ] to further amend the judgment entered long ago in Hooks sic." The attorneys representing the inmates also received a copy of this letter. The district court responded in a brief letter:

[18] I have no objections to the procedure outlined in your letter of June 24, 1982. It seems to me to be particularly appropriate since the stipulated judgment in this case was entered almost ten years ago.

[19] I don't, of course, express any comment on the new proposals, and would only do so if there were a case before me.

[20] The Department then made several changes in the mail regulations between 1982 and 1987. Interpreting the district court's letter as permission to disregard the consent decree, the Department never attempted to amend or modify the consent decree. In 1990, the Department passed new regulations governing Christmas packages, and 265 inmates brought an action to enforce the 1973 consent decree. None of the 265 inmates, the present plaintiffs/appellees, was a party to the earlier consent decree.

[21] On December 6, 1990, the district court conducted a hearing on the inmates' motions for contempt and injunctive relief. The court ruled that, although changes in the mail regulations might be in order, the proper way to address a direct conflict with the 1973 consent decree is a motion under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b): "If there is a problem with any decree ever entered by this Court dealing with the prisons, the way in which you resolve it is you bring a petition before the Court explaining why in law or fact or both there should be a change." The court rejected the Department's arguments that the court's 1982 letter excused the Department from further compliance with the decree. The court also ruled that the 265 inmates had standing to enforce the 1973 consent decree. Thus, the court enjoined the Department "from making any changes in the implementation of Christmas food packages received pursuant to the Consent Decree approved by this court . . . unless this court issues an order otherwise."

[22] Discussion

[23] A district court retains jurisdiction to enforce its judgments, including consent decrees. City of Las Vegas, Nev. v. Clark County, Nev.,755 F.2d 697, 701 (9th Cir. 1985). Because the inmates allege a violation of the consent decree, the district court had jurisdiction. Id. The grant of an injunction is discretionary and is normally reviewed for an abuse of discretion or application of erroneous legal principles. Tollis, Inc. v. San Bernardino County,827 F.2d 1329, 1331 (9th Cir. 1987). However, the two primary issues presented in this case - (1) standing and (2) the procedure for modifying or vacating a consent decree - are issues of law that must be reviewed de novo.

[24] I. Standing

[25] Whether the 265 inmates have standing to enforce the 1973 consent decree is an issue of law that is reviewed de novo. EMI, Ltd. v. Bennett,738 F.2d 994, 996 (9th Cir.) (standing is a jurisdictional question that is reviewed de novo), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1073, 83 L. Ed. 2d 508, 105 S. Ct. 567 (1984). The Department of Corrections argues that only parties to a consent decree have standing to bring an action to enforce the decree. Because neither the 1973 suit nor the present action was certified as a class action, and because none of the 265 plaintiffs in this action was a party to the 1973 suit, the Department asserts that the plaintiffs have no standing to enforce the consent decree.

[26] We begin our analysis of this issue by noting that consent decrees are essentially contractual agreements that are given the status of a judicial decree. Contract principles are generally applicable in our analysis of consent decrees, provided contract analysis does not undermine the judicial character of the decree. See, e.g., Thompson v. Enomoto,915 F.2d 1383, 1388 (9th Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 112 S. Ct. 965, 117 L. Ed. 2d 131 (1992). Key to the present case, consent decrees are construed as contracts for purposes of enforcement. United States v. ITT Continental Baking Co.,420 U.S. 223, 238, 43 L. Ed. 2d 148, 95 S. Ct. 926 (1975); see also Martin v. Wilks, 490 U.S. 755, 788, 104 L. Ed. 2d 835, 109 S. Ct. 2180 n.27 (1989) (Stevens, J., Dissenting).

[27] Therefore, enforcement of consent decrees is governed by the established contract principle that non-parties, as intended third party beneficiaries, may enforce an agreement. See Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 304 & cmt. a-b (1981) (parties to an agreement have the power to create enforcement rights in non-parties). This principle is consistent with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure: "When an order is made in favor of a person who is not a party to the action, that person may enforce obedience to the order by the same process as if a party. . . ." Fed. R. Civ. P. 71; see Berger v. Heckler,771 F.2d 1556, 1565-66 (2d Cir. 1985); Lavapies v. Bowen, 687 F. Supp. 1193, 1207 (S.D. Ohio 1988) ("Under Rule 71, a non-party who establishes standing to proceed as a third-party beneficiary of a settlement agreement or consent decree may pursue enforcement of that agreement or decree.") (citations omitted). In short, intended third party beneficiaries of a consent decree have standing to enforce the decree.

[28] The Department asserts that even intended third party beneficiaries have no standing to enforce a consent decree. The Department's arguments stem from a broad reading of Supreme Court language on standing that would prohibit all third party beneficiaries of a consent decree, even intended beneficiaries: "[A] well-settled line of authority from this Court establishes that a consent decree is not enforceable directly or in collateral proceedings by those who are not parties to it even though they were intended to be benefited by it." Blue Chip Stamps v. Manor Drug Stores,421 U.S. 723, 750, 44 L. Ed. 2d 539, 95 S. Ct. 1917 (1975).

[29] However, a more thorough analysis reveals that the standing rule from Blue Chip Stamps prohibits only incidental third party beneficiaries from suing to enforce a consent decree. In Blue Chip Stamps, the government had been the plaintiff that compelled the earlier consent decree, and the private beneficiaries of the decree later sought to bring an action under the decree. At the time the government entered into the consent decree, it was well-settled that "only the Government can seek enforcement of its consent decrees." Dahl, Inc. v. Roy Cooper Co.,448 F.2d 17, 20 (9th Cir. 1971). Because the Government knew at the time it entered the consent decree that the private beneficiaries it intended to benefit would be unable to bring actions to enforce the consent decree, the private beneficiaries were only incidental third party beneficiaries.