In its much anticipated decision in Harris v. Quinn, 573 U.S. __ (2014), the Supreme Court of the United States in a five to four ruling struck down an Illinois regulatory framework that required personal assistants (PAs) for Medicaid recipients to pay agency fees to the union. The Court held that the First Amendment prohibits the collection of an agency fee from PAs in the Illinois Rehabilitation Program who do not want to join or support the union.
The Court’s Harris decision rests on narrow grounds. The Court refused to overturn, as urged by Pamela Harris, its decision in Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed., 341 U.S. 209 (1997). The Abood decision held that state employees who choose not to join a public sector union may nevertheless be compelled to pay an agency-fee to support union work related to the collective bargaining process. In Harris, the Court characterized the Abood opinion as “questionable on several grounds” and declined to extend its holding to the Illinois PAs. In distinguishing Abood, the Court noted Abood’s questionable foundations and the differences between the types of public sector employees at issue.
First, the Court held that the PAs are much different than the full-fledged public employees in Abood. The Court explained that unlike full-fledged public employees, PAs are almost entirely answerable to the customers and not to the state. Moreover, PAs do not enjoy most of the rights and benefits that inure to state employees and PAs are not indemnified by the state for claims against them arising from actions taken during the course of their employment.
Second, the Court held that the justification for the agency-fee in Abood is inapplicable to the PAs under the Illinois regulatory framework because the union in Harris cannot negotiate on behalf of, or represent, the PAs in settling disputes. Specifically, the Court noted that the Illinois law requires all PAs to receive the same rate of pay and the union has no authority with respect to a PA’s grievances against a customer.
Third, the Court declined to extend Abood’s holding because it would create further interpretation problems. Notably, state regulations and benefits affecting such public employees exist along a continuum, and it is unclear at what point, short of full-fledged public employment, Abood would apply.
After concluding that Abood did not apply to the PAs, the Court next determined whether the Illinois regulatory framework was constitutional on First Amendment grounds. To this end, the Court analyzed whether the agency-fee provision serves a compelling state interest that cannot be achieved through means significantly less restrictive of associational freedom. Ultimately, the Court concluded that none of the interests that respondents contend are furthered by the agency-fee provision were sufficient. Accordingly, the Court struck down the agency-fee provision on First Amendment grounds, but declined to abrogate Abood.
Although Harris is a narrowly tailored decision that does not apply to private sector employers, it may signal a shift in the Court’s view of how future agency-fee provisions are adjudicated. Therefore, the Court’s willingness to nullify an agency-fee provision, albeit in the public sector, is a significant labor law development.