Union Took Wrong Route to Challenge Inclusion in Declaratory Judgment, Holds Seventh Circuit

In Shakman v. Clerk of the Circuit Court, No. 19-2772 (7th Cir. Aug. 13, 2020), the Seventh Circuit dismisses an appeal on the ground that the union bringing it was not a party to the action below, and thus the court lacked jurisdiction to consider its challenge a declaratory judgment that affected its operations.

Shakman, a long-running consent decree governing hiring in Cook County, Illinois government, was before a special master for enforcement purposes. “As part of her effort to determine whether the Clerk was continuing to favor political allies in employment decisions, the special master sought to observe the conduct of the Clerk’s office managers at employee grievance meetings. But the employees’ union, Teamsters Local 700, didn’t appreciate the scrutiny, and it sent the special master a cease-and-desist letter purporting to bar her from the room. In response, the plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment clarifying that the 2018 supplemental relief order authorized the special master to observe the grievance meetings.”

The union challenged the special master’s authority before the judge, filing a brief in opposition to the plaintiffs’ motion. The district court entered the requested relief, and the union appealed.

The Seventh Circuit dismisses in a terse six-page opinion. It finds no appellate jurisdiction because the union was not a party in the proceedings below. While the issue is not one of Article III standing, the requirement that an appeal be brought by a party is settled by federal case law dating back to the nineteenth century, and appears expressly in various statutes and rules governing jurisdiction in the Courts of Appeals.

The panel rejects the union’s attempted analogy to a recognized exception to this rule, that of absent class members who appeal a settlement. “This argument is in considerable tension with the union’s position that the declaratory judgment cannot bind it because it is not a party to the litigation.” In any case, the panel notes, an absent class member is a special case because a class settlement completely disposes of their claim under preclusion principles, a condition not met by this case.

“The union didn’t necessarily have to remain a bystander to the suit. It could have moved to intervene, and if the magistrate judge had denied the motion, the union could have appealed that order.” Indeed, denial of intervention is a final and immediately appealable order. But the union chose only to file a brief, which did not “clothe[] the union with party status.”

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