Labor and Employment Law at the U.S. Supreme Court - Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on several cases in the spring and summer of 2016 that will be of great importance for employers. One such case is Friedrichs v. California Teachers Ass'n, No. 14-915, where the Court may rule that mandatory "fair share" fees for non-members of public sector unions are unconstitutional.


Under current California law (and similar laws in over 20 other states), a union may become the exclusive bargaining representative for public employees in a given bargaining unit by submitting proof that the majority of employees in that unit wish to be represented by the union. After the union becomes the exclusive representative for a bargaining unit, it may establish an "agency-shop" arrangement, whereby all employees must, as a condition of continued employment, either join the union or remain a non-member but pay mandatory "fair share" fees.

Fair share fees, however, may only be used on activities germane to collective bargaining and the union is required to send notice to all non-members outlining how the fees will be spent. If a non-member wishes to avoid paying fees for activities that are not related to collective bargaining (non-chargeable fees), he or she must notify the union in order to receive a rebate or fee reduction.

Parties to the Lawsuit

The Plaintiffs in Friedrichs are: (1) public school teachers who have resigned their union membership and object to paying the non-chargeable portion of their fair share fee each year; and (2) the Christian Educators Association International, a non-profit religious organization that serves Christians working in public schools. The Defendants in Friedrichs are: (1) the local unions for the school districts in which Plaintiffs are employed and the superintendents of those unions; (2) the National Educators Association; and (3) the California Teachers Association.

Plaintiffs' Claims and the Lower Court Results

Plaintiffs argue that by requiring them to make any financial contribution to a union, California's agency-shop arrangement violates their rights to free speech and association under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Plaintiffs further argue that the agency-shop system requiring them to "opt-out" in order to avoid making financial contributions in support of non-chargeable union expenditures is a violation of their rights to free speech and association.

In the lower courts, however, Plaintiffs conceded that current law, including the U.S. Supreme Court case of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977), barred their claims. As such, Plaintiffs took the unusual step of asking those courts to rule against them so that they could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their requests were granted and the lower courts ruled in favor of Defendants.

Questions for the U.S. Supreme Court

Plaintiffs raise two questions for the U.S. Supreme Court: (1) whether the Abood case should be overruled and public-sector "agency shop" arrangements invalidated under the First Amendment; and (2) whether it violates the First Amendment to require that public employees affirmatively object to subsidizing non-chargeable speech by public-sector unions, rather than requiring that employees affirmatively opt-in to subsidize such speech.

Implications and Possible Outcomes

A ruling in favor of Plaintiffs in this case may have far-reaching implications including effectively extending right-to-work laws to government employees across the country, as well as significantly decreasing public-sector union revenue.

Following oral argument on January 11, 2016, many commentators believe the Court will side with Plaintiffs on a 5-4 vote. However, after the passing of Justice Scalia last month, the outcome is less predictable. If the case is decided by a 4-4 split decision, the ruling from the lower courts will remain in place and effectively serve as a victory for Defendants. Alternatively, the Court could decide to hold the case over for re-argument next term after a new Justice is appointed. If that happens, the outcome may well be determined by the yet unknown newest member of the Court.

If you have questions regarding this article or other labor and employment law matters, please contact Michael Link or any other attorney at Peters, Revnew, Kappenman & Anderson, P.A.

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