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Locke v. Karass (07-610) 
Supreme Court allows local union to charge non-members for national litigation expenses
Decided January 21, 2009 
Full text of decision 

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Official syllabus: 

The collective-bargaining agreement between Maine and respondent local union, the exclusive bargaining agent for certain state employees, requires nonmember employees represented by the union to pay the local a "service fee" equal to the portion of union dues related to ordinary representational activities, e.g., collective bargaining or contract administration activities. That fee does not include nonchargeable union activities such as political, public relations, or lobbying activities. The fee includes a charge that represents the "affiliation fee" the local pays to the national union. But, it covers only the part of the affiliation fee that helps to pay for the national's own chargeable activities, which include some litigation activities that directly benefit other locals or the national itself, rather than respondent local. The petitioners, nonmembers of the local, brought this suit claiming, inter alia, that the First Amendment prohibits charging them for any portion of the service fee that represents litigation that does not directly benefit the local, i.e., "national litigation." The District Court found no material facts at issue and upheld this element of the fee. The First Circuit affirmed.

Held: Under this Court's precedent, the First Amendment permits a local union to charge nonmembers for national litigation expenses as long as (1) the subject matter of the (extra-local) litigation is of a kind that would be chargeable if the litigation were local, e.g., litigation appropriately related to collective bargaining rather than political activities, and (2) the charge is reciprocal in nature, i.e., the contributing local reasonably expects other locals to contribute similarly to the national's resources used for costs of similar litigation on behalf of the contributing local if and when it takes place. 

(a) Prior decisions frame the question at issue. The Court has long held that the First Amendment permits local unions designated as the exclusive bargaining representatives for certain employees to charge nonmember employees a service fee as a condition of their continued employment. With respect to litigation expenses, the Court also held that a local could charge nonmembers for expenses of litigation normally conducted by an exclusive representative, including litigation incidental to collective bargaining, but said (in language that the petitioners here emphasize) that litigation expenses "not having such connection with the bargaining unit are not to be charged to objecting employees." Ellis v. Railway Clerks, 466 U. S. 435 . Later, the Court held, with respect to the chargeability of a local's payment of an affiliation fee to a national, that the local "may charge objecting employees for their pro rata share of the costs associated with otherwise chargeable activities of its state and national affiliates, even if those activities were not performed for the direct benefit of the objecting employees' bargaining unit." Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Assn., 500 U. S. 507 . The Court added that the local unit need not "demonstrate a direct and tangible impact upon the dissenting employee's unit," although there must be "some indication that the payment [say, to the national] is for services that may ultimately inure to the benefit of the members of the local union by virtue of their membership in the parent organization." Ibid. However, the Lehnert Court split into three irreconcilable factions on the subject here at issue, payment for national litigation.

(b) Because Lehnert failed to find a majority as to the chargeability of national litigation expenses, the lower courts have been uncertain about the matter. Having examined the question further, however, the Court now believes that, consistent with its precedent, costs of such litigation are chargeable provided the litigation meets the relevant standards for charging other national expenditures that the Lehnert majority enunciated. Under those standards, a local may charge a nonmember an appropriate share of its contribution to a national's litigation expenses if (1) the subject matter of the national litigation bears an appropriate relation to collective bargaining and (2) the arrangement is reciprocal-that is, the local's payment to the national affiliate is for "services that may ultimately inure to the benefit of the members of the local union by virtue of their membership in the parent organization." 500 U. S., at 524. Logic suggests that the same standard should apply to national litigation expenses as to other national expenses, and the Court can find no significant difference between litigation activities and other national activities, the cost of which this Court has found chargeable. The petitioners' arguments to the contrary, which rest primarily on their understanding of Ellis and Lehnert, are rejected.

(c) Applying Lehnert'sstandard to the national litigation expenses at issue demonstrates that they are both appropriately related to collective bargaining activities and reciprocal, and are therefore chargeable. First, the record establishes that the kind of national litigation activity for which the local charges nonmembers concerns only those aspects of collective bargaining, contract administration, or other matters that the courts have held chargeable. No one here denies that under Lehnert this kind of activity bears an appropriate relation to collective bargaining. See, e.g., 500 U. S., at 519. Second, although the location of the litigation activity is at the national (or extraunit) level, such activity is chargeable as long as the charges are for services that may ultimately inure to local members' benefit by virtue of their membership in the national union. Ibid. Respondent local says that the payment of its affiliation fee gives locals in general access to the national's financial resources-compiled via contributions from various locals-which would not otherwise be available to the local when needed to effectively negotiate, administer, or enforce the local's collective-bargaining agreements. Because no one claims that the national would treat respondent local any differently from other locals in this regard, the existence of reciprocity is not in dispute.

498 F. 3d 49, affirmed.

BREYER, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. ALITO, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA, J., joined.

 Case below: Locke v. Karass (1st Cir 08/08/2007) 
Official docket sheet 
Certiorari granted: February 19, 2008. 
Oral argument:  October 6, 2008.  [Transcript]  [Solicitor General's motion to participate in oral arguments was denied.]  

Question presented:  

In Ellis v. Railway Clerks, this Court unanimously "determined that the [Railway Labor Act], as informed by the First Amendment, prohibits the use of dissenters’ [union] fees for extraunit litigation." Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Ass’n, 500 U.S. 507, 528 (1981) (opinion of Blackmun, J., citing Ellis, 466 U.S. 435,453 (1984)). In Lehnert, a four-member plurality therefore held "that the Amendment proscribes such assessments in the public sector." Id. Moreover, Justice Scalia’s separate opinion, concurring in part in the judgment announced by Justice Blackmun, reasoned that "there is good reason to treat [Ellis and the Court’s other statutory cases] as merely reflecting the constitutional rule." Id. at 555. 

May a State, nonetheless, consistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, condition continued public employment on the payment of agency fees for purposes of financing a monopoly bargaining agent’s affiliates’ litigation outside of a nonunion employee’s bargaining unit? 

Certiorari Documents: 

Briefs on the merits: 

Counsel:

  • For Petitioners: W. James Young; c/o National Right to Work Legal Defense Fnd.; 8001 Braddock Rd., Suite 600; Springfield, VA  22160; wjy@nrtw.org; (703) 321-8510. 
  • For Respondent Maine State Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989: Jeremiah A. Collins; Bredhoff & Kaiser, PLLC; 805 Fifteenth Street, N.W., Suite 1000; Washington, DC  20005; jcollins@bredhoff.com; (202) 842-2600.
  • For Respondent Edward A. Karass, State Controller, et al.: Philip J. Moss; 400 Congress Street; P.O. Box 7250; Portland, ME  04112-7250; pmoss@moss-shapiro.com; (207) 774-6001. 

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