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Zelazny v. Lyng

decided: July 28, 1988.

KENNETH M. ZELAZNY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
RICHARD LYNG, SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 86 C 8687 - Paul E. Plunkett, Judge.

Cudahy, Flaum and Ripple, Circuit Judges.

Author: Ripple

RIPPLE, Circuit Judge.

The appellant, Kenneth M. Zelazny, appeals from the district court's order dismissing his suit under the doctrine of laches. We affirm.

Background

In May 1978, Mr. Zelazny held the position of Cook-DuPage County Executive Director (CED) of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS). The ASCS is an organization within the United States Department of Agriculture responsible for the implementation of various agricultural programs such as crop price support payments and conservation. The Cook-DuPage County Office is part of a national network of such local offices within the ASCS. As CED of a local office, Mr. Zelazny was the supervisor of ASCS programs in Cook and DuPage Counties, Illinois. He was selected for this position by the County Committee, a group elected by county farmers who participate in ASCS programs. Supervising the actions of the County Committee and the CED are the State Committee and the State Executive Director. The State Executive Director and the members of the State Committee are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture.

On May 19, 1978, Mr. Zelazny was informed by the County Committee that his performance was deficient in a number of key areas. He further was informed that he would be downgraded and given some additional training with a six-month opportunity to improve his performance. On November 17, 1978, Mr. Zelazny was notified that he was being terminated as of December 1, 1978 because his performance continued to be unsatisfactory. This notice of termination stated that he could appeal the action to the State Committee within ten calendar days. Mr. Zelazny filed an appeal with the State Committee on November 22, 1978. He requested review of the County Committee's decision and stated the reasons why he believed that his separation was not justified. He did not request a personal appearance or a hearing. On December 6, 1978, the State Committee informed Mr. Zelazny that it had considered his appeal but concurred in the decision of the County Committee to terminate his employment.

More than two years later, on March 20, 1981, Mr. Zelazny requested that the State Committee rescind its 1978 decision on the ground that it was made without a personal appearance. He further requested a hearing before the State Committee to present the reasons why he felt that his removal was unjustified. On September 16, 1981, the State Committee denied the request. It responded that, although Mr. Zelazny was entitled to a personal appearance, he had not requested one and therefore none of his rights had been violated.

More than five years later, on November 7, 1986, Mr. Zelazny filed the present civil action. The complaint sought a declaratory judgment that Mr. Zelazny was entitled to appear personally before the State Committee. The complaint also sought an order requiring the State Committee to rescind its decision and to schedule a new hearing at which Mr. Zelazny could appear personally. On February 23, 1987, the government filed a motion to dismiss on the ground of laches. Despite two extensions of time, Mr. Zelazny did not respond to the government's motion. On June 15, 1987, the district court issued an order granting the government's motion and dismissing the action. Thereafter, Mr. Zelazny filed a motion to reconsider, which the district court denied.

Discussion

The defense of laches an equitable doctrine. It is concerned principally with the fairness of permitting a claim to be enforced. "It is unlike [statute of] limitation[s], which is based merely on time. Rather, laches is based upon changes of conditions or relationships involved with the claim." Lingenfelter v. Keystone Consolidated Indus., 691 F.2d 339, 340 (7th Cir. 1982) (per curiam). Laches consists of two elements: (1) a lack of diligence by the plaintiff, and (2) prejudice resulting from the delay. Under this two-prong approach, the plaintiff bears the burden of explaining his delay in bringing suit. "If the delay is inexcusable, then the defendant must show prejudice." Id.

In this case, the district court determined that Mr. Zelazny's delay of almost eight years from the accrual of the cause of action to the filing of his suit was unreasonable. Zelazny v. Lyng, No. 86-C-8687, mem. op. at 5 (E.D. Ill. June 15, 1987) [hereinafter Mem. op.]; R.26 at 5. During the course of this litigation, Mr. Zelazny has never offered an explanation for his delay in filing suit nor does he now challenge the district court's determination that inexcusable delay has been established as a matter of law. Instead, his sole argument on appeal is that the government has not demonstrated prejudice resulting from the delay. Because Mr. Zelazny does not dispute his lack of diligence in this matter, we turn directly to the prejudice prong of the inquiry.*fn1

1.

In addressing the question of prejudice, the district court stated that, in the absence of any explanation for the delay in bringing suit, prejudice can be presumed. Id. This statement is not without support in the case law. In Baker Manufacturing Co. v. Whitewater Manufacturing Co., 430 F.2d 1008, 1009 (7th Cir. 1970), cert. denied, 401 U.S. 956, 28 L. Ed. 2d 240, 91 S. Ct. 978 (1971), the court concluded that an unreasonable and inexcusable delay by a patentee in bringing an infringement suit raises a presumption that the alleged infringer had been prejudiced by the delay. In Lingenfelter, a suit for reinstatement under the Veteran's Reemployment Rights Act, the court cited Baker as authority for this presumption of prejudice. 691 F.2d at 340. However, faced with the plaintiff's vigorous protestations that the presumption was improper, the court declined to decide the case on that basis. Instead, the court held only that, on the record before it, the district court's determination of actual prejudice was not an abuse of discretion. Id. Wilmes v. United States Postal Service, 810 F.2d 130 (7th Cir. 1987), is similar. There, the court stated that it would presume prejudice but nonetheless went on to hold that it agreed with the district court's determination of actual prejudice. Id. at 134-35; ...


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