Case: Sheff v. O'Neill

89-cv-4026240 | Connecticut state trial court

Filed Date: April 26, 1989

Case Ongoing

Clearinghouse coding complete

Case Summary

Background and Complaint In 1988, the Connecticut Education Commissioner published a report showing that school segregation by race was worsening in his state; 80 percent of the state’s minority students were concentrated within 14 of its 165 school districts. The problem was even more pronounced in Hartford where minority students made up 92 percent of the public school population there, as compared to the suburban districts outside of Hartford, where only seven out of 21 had minority populati…

Background and Complaint In 1988, the Connecticut Education Commissioner published a report showing that school segregation by race was worsening in his state; 80 percent of the state’s minority students were concentrated within 14 of its 165 school districts. The problem was even more pronounced in Hartford where minority students made up 92 percent of the public school population there, as compared to the suburban districts outside of Hartford, where only seven out of 21 had minority populations exceeding 10 percent. Desegregated Differently, The American Prospect. Rachel M. Cohen, Desegregated, Differently. American Prospect (Oct. 18, 2017). It was within this context that Elizabeth Sheff, mother of ten-year-old black Hartford student, brought this action on behalf of her son. She was joined not only by several other Hartford parents, but also white parents and students from the districts outside of Hartford. In suing the Governor of Connecticut, state Board of Education members, the Education Commissioner, and other state officials, these parents sought declaratory and injunctive relief, specifically for the plaintiff children to have an integrated education, equal educational opportunities, and a minimally adequate education. The plaintiffs also sought for the court to maintain jurisdiction over the case until full relief was granted. They claimed the inherent inequality across school districts, including depriving white children the opportunity to learn from students of other backgrounds, violated various Connecticut statutes and the Due Process Clause of the Connecticut Constitution. The plaintiffs filed this complaint on April 26, 1989 in Connecticut Superior Court and were represented by the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, Hispanic Advocacy Project, and private counsel. Procedural History and Sheff Holding The defendants raised the seven following defenses to the plaintiff’s claims: (1) sovereign immunity; (2) stare decisis; (3) separation of powers; (4) the lack of a justiciable controversy; (5) the plaintiffs' failure to join necessary parties, including the city of Hartford; (6) the absence of state action; and (7) the unavailability of court-ordered remedies. The trial court initially denied the defendants’ motions to strike and motions for summary judgment based on these defenses. The court did, however, find that the plaintiffs lacked a state cause of action and ruled in favor of the defendants, as there was no evidence supporting the claim that actions of the state had in fact caused the conditions discussed in their complaint. The plaintiffs then appealed to the Supreme Court of Connecticut. A coalition of civil rights organizations soon joined efforts to represent the plaintiffs, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the ACLU. In July 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court, fully adopting the trial court’s findings of fact, voted in a 5-4 decision to reverse the trial court’s judgment and issue declaratory judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. Sheff v. O’Neill, 238 Conn. 1(1996). In reaching its judgment, the Court applied the test from another Connecticut Supreme Court case, Horton v. Meskill, 195 Conn. 24, 486 A.2d. 1099 (1985), which established that after the plaintiffs demonstrate that educational disparities are more than de minimis, the state must show both that the disparities are incidental to a legitimate state policy and they are constitutional. The Court agreed with the defendants that their districting policies were not intended to cause the significant disparities, but found the disparities still infringed on the plaintiffs’ state constitutional right to equal educational opportunity. Legislative Response and Stipulation Agreements The Court noted that it opted for declaratory judgment and stayed further judicial proceedings in order to give the Connecticut General Assembly an opportunity to provide a legislative remedy to the state’s educational disparities. By 1997, the legislature responded with new funding for early childhood education, a state takeover of Hartford’s schools, and an expanded interdistrict school choice program featuring integrated magnets. This effort was later seen as severely weakened by limited funding and the voluntary nature of integration efforts. In 2003, the parties reached a settlement agreement that included a state commitment to having 30 percent of Hartford students enrolled in integrated schools by 2007. The agreement also included a formula for monitoring progress, and provided that interdistrict magnet schools, the Open Choice program, and interdistrict cooperative programs would be the three key instruments in meeting this goal. But with slow progress towards this goal and limited political commitment to providing more funds, the plaintiffs went back to court in 2008 and reached a new, more robust stipulation agreement. The parties agreed to set a goal of either meeting 80 percent of Hartford minority student demand for schooling in integrated settings or 41 percent of Hartford minority students actually in reduced-isolation school settings by the 2012-2013 year. This agreement included specific benchmarks and mandated the creation of state offices and a Comprehensive Management Plan. According to the American Prospect, the percentage of Hartford students in integrated schools increased from 19 percent in 2008 to 41 percent in 2013. Extensions and New Litigation Beginning in 2013, the parties periodically extended the stipulation agreement and increased its target percentage of minority students in integrated schools, culminating in a goal of 47.5 percent for the 2016-2017 year. Sheff v. O'Neill, 2017 WL 4812624. The parties were unable to extend the stipulation beyond June 30, 2017. On May 30, 2017, plaintiffs filed a motion for order seeking further implementation of the 1996 decision. They also filed a motion for temporary injunction, seeking to extend the terms of the last stipulation agreement pending a hearing on the motion for order. The court granted the temporary injunction on June 16, 2017. The state then moved to unilaterally change the agreed-upon definition of an integrated setting from 75 percent minority students to 80 percent. The Superior Court denied this motion, opting to maintain the 75 percent standard for that school year’s magnet lottery. This case is ongoing.

On January 27, 2022, the parties reached a final settlement agreement, waiting approval by a judge and the Connecticut State Legislature. If approved, it would result in a permanent injunction enforcing the terms of a plan that would significantly expand the number of available seats for students from Black, Latinx, and/or low-income families who experienced systemic discrimination and would require Connecticut’s Department of Education to publicly report data on educational equity and to commit to greater diversity in its hiring practices. The case is ongoing. 

Summary Authors

Bryce Freeman (1/13/2018)

People


Judge(s)

Berger, Marshall (Connecticut)

Attorneys(s) for Plaintiff

Alisberg, Nancy B. (Connecticut)

Brittain, John (Connecticut)

Colangelo, Matthew B. (District of Columbia)

Del Valle, Sandra (New York)

Hansen, Christopher A. (New York)

Horton, Wesley W. (Connecticut)

Maer, Foster (New York)

McGuire, David J. (Connecticut)

Mukherjee, Elora (New York)

Judge(s)

Berger, Marshall (Connecticut)

Attorneys(s) for Plaintiff

Alisberg, Nancy B. (Connecticut)

Brittain, John (Connecticut)

Colangelo, Matthew B. (District of Columbia)

Del Valle, Sandra (New York)

Hansen, Christopher A. (New York)

Horton, Wesley W. (Connecticut)

Maer, Foster (New York)

McGuire, David J. (Connecticut)

Mukherjee, Elora (New York)

Parker, Dennis D. (New York)

Redman, Renee Colette (Connecticut)

Rodriguez, Wilfred (Connecticut)

Schwarz, Ghita (New York)

Southerland, Vincent (New York)

Stone, Martha (Connecticut)

Tegeler, Philip D. (Connecticut)

Attorneys(s) for Defendant

Blumenthal, Richard (Connecticut)

Jepsen, George (Connecticut)

Expert/Monitor/Master

Stevens, Leonard (Florida)

Documents in the Clearinghouse

Document

89-cv-4026240

Original Complaint

April 26, 1989

April 26, 1989

Complaint

No. 15255

Order and Opinion

Connecticut state supreme court

678 A.2d 1267

Sept. 28, 1995

Sept. 28, 1995

Order/Opinion

89-cv-4026240

Stipulation and Order

Jan. 22, 2003

Jan. 22, 2003

Settlement Agreement

89-cv-4026240

Motion for Order Enforcing Judgment and to Obtain a Court-Ordered Remedy

July 5, 2007

July 5, 2007

Pleading / Motion / Brief

89-cv-4026240

Proposed Phase II Plan

Nov. 1, 2007

Nov. 1, 2007

Monitor/Expert/Receiver Report

89-cv-4026240

Stipulation and Proposed Order

April 4, 2008

April 4, 2008

Order/Opinion

89-cv-4026240

A Decade and Then Some: The First Ten Years of Sheff v. O'Neill Implementation

April 10, 2008

April 10, 2008

Other

89-cv-4026240

Comprehensive Management Plan

Sept. 30, 2008

Sept. 30, 2008

Other

89-cv-4026240

Memorandum of Decision

Feb. 22, 2010

Feb. 22, 2010

Order/Opinion

89-cv-4026240

Year 3 Status Report

May 1, 2010

May 1, 2010

Other

Resources

Docket

Last updated July 27, 2022, 3:01 a.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

Case Details

State / Territory: Connecticut

Case Type(s):

School Desegregation

Key Dates

Filing Date: April 26, 1989

Case Ongoing: Yes

Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Description:

Plaintiffs are a group of Hartford parents of various races.

Plaintiff Type(s):

Private Plaintiff

Attorney Organizations:

NAACP Legal Defense Fund

ACLU Affiliates (any)

Public Interest Lawyer: Yes

Filed Pro Se: No

Class Action Sought: No

Class Action Outcome: Not sought

Defendants

Governor of Connecticut, State

State Board of Education, State

Commissioner, State

Defendant Type(s):

Elementary/Secondary School

Jurisdiction-wide

Case Details

Causes of Action:

State law

Availably Documents:

Complaint (any)

Any published opinion

Outcome

Prevailing Party: Plaintiff

Nature of Relief:

Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement

Declaratory Judgment

Source of Relief:

Settlement

Litigation

Form of Settlement:

Court Approved Settlement or Consent Decree

Order Duration: 2003 - 2017

Content of Injunction:

Develop anti-discrimination policy

Discrimination Prohibition

Issues

General:

Education

Funding

School/University Facilities

School/University policies

Discrimination-basis:

Race discrimination

Race:

Black

Race, unspecified

Type of Facility:

Government-run