About Us  |  About Cheetah®  |  Contact Us

Appeal challenging union political fees moot after teachers resigned from union

By Ronald Miller, J.D.

An appeal by public school teachers in a suit challenging a requirement by public sector teachers’ unions that members pay a fee to support the unions’ political and ideological activities as a violation of their constitutional right to free speech was declared moot by the Ninth Circuit after the teachers disassociated themselves from the unions. When the teachers resigned their union memberships during the pendency of the appeal, they mooted the appeal depriving the appeals court of jurisdiction. Their 11th hour attempt to resurrect the appeal by adding a new party was erroneous as a matter of law. Further, even if mootness were not an insurmountable barrier to considering a Rule 21 motion, the new party failed to satisfy the criteria for Rule 21 joinder (Bain v. California Teachers Association June 11, 2018, Callahan, C.).

Political fee. The teachers filed suit against teachers’ unions alleging that their unions’ requirement that they pay a fee to support the unions’ political and ideological activities violated their constitutional right to free speech. In this instance, the teachers reasoned that, as exclusive bargaining representatives under California law, the unions were state actors and thus subject to the First Amendment’s proscriptions. Because the First Amendment prohibits state actors from infringing individuals’ right to free speech, the teachers argued that their unions’ requirement that union members pay a political fee violates their and other members’ constitutional rights.

However, the appeals court observed that a change in the teachers’ professional circumstances during the pendency of this appeal fundamentally altered the posture of the case. When the teachers filed their lawsuit, they were members of the unions. They later disassociated themselves from their respective unions, meaning they could no longer benefit from the injunctive and declaratory relief that they sought. Accordingly, the teachers’ appeal was rendered moot.

Agency shop agreements. California law accommodates agency shop arrangements between public sector teachers’ unions and public school employers. If a majority of teachers in a unit elect to negotiate collectively with their employer, then the union “may become the exclusive representative for the employees of that unit for purposes of meeting and negotiating.” California allows public sector unions to charge a “fair share service fee” to those employees who do not join the union. Nonmembers pay less than their union-member counterparts. Union members are subject to “non-chargeable fees”—fees that fund member-only benefits and the union’s political, idealogical, and other activities unrelated to collective bargaining. Consistent with their internal policies, the unions in this case provided certain members-only benefits.

According to the teachers, the unions and state school boards worked together to force teachers to either finance the unions’ political activities and thereby surrender their free speech rights, or forego the benefits of union membership and keep their constitutional rights intact. They argued that because membership benefits are so enticing, most teachers will acquiesce, join the unions, and pay the non-chargeable fee. The teachers sought (1) a declaration that California’s agency shop laws, collective bargaining laws, and the CBAs entered with the unions violated their constitutional rights; (2) that the laws and CBAs coerced teachers into funding union political activities; and (3) that deductions from their paychecks for dues that supported the unions’ non-chargeable activities violated their constitutional rights. They further sought an injunction barring the unions from denying union membership based on a refusal to pay the non-chargeable fee; and barring employers from deducting the non-chargeable fee from union members’ paychecks.

State action lacking. The unions filed a motion to dismiss, which the district court granted. The district court rejected the teachers’ argument that the unions’ internal membership rules requiring their members to pay the non-chargeable fee constituted state action. It also found unpersuasive their theory that the choice between the benefits of union membership versus the lack of benefits of nonmember status could not exist without the state. Rather, the district court found that the teachers challenged only a private decision by the unions. Additionally, the district court rejected the teachers’ argument that the CBAs are infused with state action through state legislation authorizing agency shops. Thus, the district court found that the teachers failed to show that the unions were state actors.

Mootness. The appeals court first had to decide whether the teachers’ appeal was moot in light of their disassociation from the unions. An actual controversy must exist at all stages of review, not merely at the time the complaint was filed. Thus, a plaintiff must satisfy Article III standing at each stage of the litigation, including the appeal. Here, the teachers argued that a live controversy persisted despite the termination of their memberships in the unions. The argued that the district court’s ability to grant restitution for past alleged constitutional violations under the umbrella of “such additional or different relief” sufficed to maintain a live controversy.

However, the appeals court rejected their attempt to transform their lawsuit from a request for prospective equitable relief into a plea for money damages. It noted that the teachers had consistently represented throughout the litigation that they were seeking only declaratory and injunctive relief.

Addition of new party. Still, the teachers attempted to “un-moot” the case by adding a new party under Rule 21. Rule 21 provides that, the court may at any time, on just terms, add or drop a party. To grant the teachers’ request, the appeals court would first need to hold that a court, having been deprived of jurisdiction by way of mootness, may nevertheless resurrect jurisdiction by adding a party to the suit. Second, the court would need to find that the new party had standing in its own right to pursue the employees’ claims. Further, the court would still need to decide that the teachers’ satisfied Rule 21’s criteria for adding the new party to the suit. Here, the Ninth Circuit joined the Second Circuit in holding that Rule 21 may not be used to rehabilitate a court’s jurisdiction where a case becomes moot on appeal. Accordingly, the appeals court denied the teachers’ motion to join a new party.