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Case Name Sheff v. O'Neill SD-CT-0002
Docket / Court HHD-X07-CV89-4026240-S ( State Court )
Additional Docket(s) C–79–WS–68  [ 79-68 ]
State/Territory Connecticut
Case Type(s) Education
School Desegregation
Attorney Organization ACLU Affiliates (any)
NAACP Legal Defense Fund
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 ... read more >
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.

Bryce Freeman - 01/13/2018

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Issues and Causes of Action
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Content of Injunction
Develop anti-discrimination policy
Discrimination Prohibition
Elementary/Secondary School
Race discrimination
School/University Facilities
School/University policies
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
Race, unspecified
Type of Facility
Causes of Action State law
Defendant(s) Commissioner
Governor of Connecticut
State Board of Education
Plaintiff Description Plaintiffs are a group of Hartford parents of various races.
Indexed Lawyer Organizations ACLU Affiliates (any)
NAACP Legal Defense Fund
Class action status sought No
Class action status outcome Not sought
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Plaintiff
Public Int. Lawyer Yes
Nature of Relief Declaratory Judgment
Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement
Source of Relief Litigation
Form of Settlement Court Approved Settlement or Consent Decree
Order Duration 2003 - 2017
Filed 04/26/1989
Case Ongoing Yes
Additional Resources
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  Sheff Movement Website
Date: Jan. 13, 2018
[ Detail ]

  Desegregated Differently: A Case Study of the Sheff Case
Date: Oct. 18, 2017
By: Rachel M. Cohen (The American Prospect)
[ Detail ]

Court Docket(s)
No docket sheet currently in the collection
General Documents
State Trial Court
Original Complaint
SD-CT-0002-0001.pdf | Detail
State Supreme Court
Order and Opinion (678 A.2d 1267)
SD-CT-0002-0013.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Source: Google Scholar
State Trial Court
Stipulation and Order
SD-CT-0002-0004.pdf | Detail
State Trial Court
Motion for Order Enforcing Judgment and to Obtain a Court-Ordered Remedy
SD-CT-0002-0002.pdf | Detail
State Trial Court
Proposed Phase II Plan
SD-CT-0002-0003.pdf | Detail
State Trial Court
Stipulation and Proposed Order
SD-CT-0002-0005.pdf | Detail
State Trial Court
A Decade and Then Some: The First Ten Years of Sheff v. O'Neill Implementation
SD-CT-0002-0010.pdf | Detail
State Trial Court
Comprehensive Management Plan
SD-CT-0002-0012.pdf | Detail
State Trial Court
Memorandum of Decision
SD-CT-0002-0011.pdf | Detail
State Trial Court
Year 3 Status Report
SD-CT-0002-0009.pdf | Detail
State Trial Court
Stipulation and Order
SD-CT-0002-0006.pdf | Detail
State Trial Court
Stipulation and Proposed Order
SD-CT-0002-0007.pdf | Detail
State Trial Court
Stipulation and Order
SD-CT-0002-0008.pdf | Detail
show all people docs
Judges Berger, Marshall Court not on record show/hide docs
SD-CT-0002-0005 | SD-CT-0002-0006 | SD-CT-0002-0007 | SD-CT-0002-0008 | SD-CT-0002-0011
Plaintiff's Lawyers Alisberg, Nancy B. (Connecticut) show/hide docs
Brittain, John (Connecticut) show/hide docs
Colangelo, Matthew B. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
SD-CT-0002-0002 | SD-CT-0002-0005
Del Valle, Sandra (New York) show/hide docs
Hansen, Christopher A. (New York) show/hide docs
Horton, Wesley W. (Connecticut) show/hide docs
SD-CT-0002-0001 | SD-CT-0002-0002 | SD-CT-0002-0004 | SD-CT-0002-0005 | SD-CT-0002-0006 | SD-CT-0002-0007 | SD-CT-0002-0008
Maer, Foster (New York) show/hide docs
McGuire, David J. (Connecticut) show/hide docs
Mukherjee, Elora (New York) show/hide docs
Parker, Dennis D. (New York) show/hide docs
SD-CT-0002-0002 | SD-CT-0002-0004 | SD-CT-0002-0005 | SD-CT-0002-0006 | SD-CT-0002-0007 | SD-CT-0002-0008
Redman, Renee Colette (Connecticut) show/hide docs
Rodriguez, Wilfred (Connecticut) show/hide docs
SD-CT-0002-0001 | SD-CT-0002-0004
Schwarz, Ghita (New York) show/hide docs
SD-CT-0002-0002 | SD-CT-0002-0005
Southerland, Vincent (New York) show/hide docs
SD-CT-0002-0006 | SD-CT-0002-0007 | SD-CT-0002-0008
Stone, Martha (Connecticut) show/hide docs
SD-CT-0002-0001 | SD-CT-0002-0002 | SD-CT-0002-0004 | SD-CT-0002-0005 | SD-CT-0002-0006 | SD-CT-0002-0007 | SD-CT-0002-0008
Tegeler, Philip D. (Connecticut) show/hide docs
SD-CT-0002-0001 | SD-CT-0002-0004
Defendant's Lawyers Blumenthal, Richard (Connecticut) show/hide docs
SD-CT-0002-0004 | SD-CT-0002-0005
Jepsen, George (Connecticut) show/hide docs
SD-CT-0002-0006 | SD-CT-0002-0007 | SD-CT-0002-0008

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