Knox Update: District Judge Rules for California Teachers Association (Sort of)

In a post-Knox case challenging the constitutionality of agency shop agreements, a federal district court has granted the challengers’ motion for judgment on the pleadings — but in their opponents’ favor.

The case is Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which we have been following since the summer. Last April, ten public school teachers and a religious organization called the Christian Education Association International filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the California Educational Employment Relations Act. Under the Act, when a union submits proof that a majority of public school employees in a district wish to be represented by the union, the union becomes the “exclusive bargaining representative” on behalf of virtually every public school employee in the district. As the exclusive bargaining representative, the union can establish an “agency shop” agreement with the district, which requires all represented employees to pay an “agency fee” as a condition of continued employment, regardless of whether the employees are members of the union. Agency fees are essentially the same as union dues except that nonmembers can “opt out” of paying a portion of the fee that will go to union activities not “germane” to collective bargaining, such as political lobbying.

The challengers allege that agency fees and the opt-out (as opposed to opt-in) procedures violate their rights to free speech and association under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. But the Supreme Court has already upheld an identical practice in a 1977 case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, in which the Court noted that agency fee agreements are essential to avoid the free-rider problem that would develop if employees could reap a union’s benefits (say, a new high-wage contract) without having to pay for the union’s bargaining costs. The challengers acknowledged that their claim is therefore “presently foreclosed by” Abood — their objective is to have Abood overturned on appeal. The current Supreme Court has welcomed such an invitation, writing in the 2012 Knox decision that Abood and similar cases may not “have given adequate recognition to the critical First Amendment rights at stake.”

Abood remains good law as far as lower courts are concerned, so the challengers asked District Judge Josephine Staton to deny their motion and grant judgment on the pleadings to the defendants so that the challengers could appeal the result. In an odd twist, Judge Staton interpreted their request such that granting the challengers’ motion for judgment on the pleadings (which is typically a “win” for the plaintiffs) would allow judgment to be entered in favor of the defendants (i.e. a “win” for the union). Regardless of any procedural hurdles, if any, this will generate, the challengers will likely immediately appeal this decision to the Ninth Circuit and eventually to the Supreme Court.

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