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  • The Supreme Court’s Decision in Harris v. Quinn May Change the Landscape of Labor Unions in America

    On June 30, 2014, in the matter of Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision holding that the First Amendment prohibits the collection of an agency fee from home health care providers who do not wish to join or a support a union. The plaintiffs in this case were personal assistant health care providers (“PAs”) in the state of Illinois who provided home care to Medicaid recipients. The plaintiffs were challenging the Illinois statute that requires government employees, whether or not they opt to join the union, to pay fees to finance the union’s activities. The statute is based on the 1977 Supreme Court decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which declared government employees could be required to pay their fair share of union fees to unions even if the employees chose not to join the union.

    The PAs brought a class action against the union that represents these employees (SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana) and other respondents in District Court. The union had previously entered into a collective bargaining agreement with the State which included an agency-fee provision, requiring all employees to pay a fee even if they chose not to be a member. This arrangement was later codified by the Public Labor Relations Act (PLRA). The action claims that the PLRA violated the First Amendment insofar as it authorized the agency-fee provision. The District Court dismissed the claim and the Seventh Circuit affirmed, concluding that the PAs were state employees within the meaning of Abood, and could be required to pay a fair share fee.

    Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, reversed the Circuit Court and agreed with the PAs argument. He ruled they should not be required to pay the union fees, but did not go as far to overturn Abood. The holding distinguished this case from Abood by ruling the PAs were only quasi-governmental employees and therefore could not be required to contribute to the union. The majority rejected the State of Illinois argument that Abood should control in this case by finding the plaintiffs were not full–fledged public employees like teachers or firefighters.

    A central issue in this case was to what extent does the state control the employment of the PAs. The employment relationship of the PA’s is shared between the homecare recipients (“customers”) and the State. The customers control most aspects of the relationship including the hiring, firing, training, supervising, and disciplining of the PA’s. The customers also propose a “service plan” that controls the PA’s duties. The state’s only role in the PA’s employment is setting the compensation rate. Because the PAs answer to their customers, the Court reasoned that the State’s only role was to pay individuals to work under third parties. It is the third parties who set the terms of their employment. Therefore, the Court ruled there was little the union could be doing to support these workers and their limited role did not warrant a required fee from non-members.

    Although, the majority ruled that Abood did not apply in this scenario, Justice Alito went on to say that Abood was an “anomaly” and will no longer survive First Amendment scrutiny. In the dissent, Justice Kagan, in anticipation of future attack on Abood, defended the holding in Abood and stressed the importance of the holding to prevent free-riders from benefiting from unions without contributing to the fees.

    With the Supreme Court split on how Abood should be applied going forward, the labor world will have to wait for another case that does not involve quasi-governmental employees to determine the future of Abood.

    If you or your institution has any questions or concerns regarding employment or labor-related issues, please contact Thomas B. Wassel at twassel@cullenanddykman.com or via his direct line at (516) 357-3868.

    A special thank you to Maria Ehlinger, a Summer Associate at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for her assistance with this blog post.