APA Lobbying Fee May Have Cheated Members

     (CN) – The American Psychological Association must face claims that it purposely misled members into paying an optional fee for lobbying work, the D.C. Circuit ruled.
     In addition to the annual membership fee that the American Psychological Association charges its membership of clinical and research psychologists, the APA has for years included a “special assessment” fee on its membership dues statement.
     The statement instructions said members “must pay” the amount due – including the special assessment fee – to retain their membership in the organization.
     Several APA members who brought suit after learning that the fee was optional claimed the special assessment was $137 per person in 2009 while regular APA dues were $238.
     Rather than a requirement of APA membership, the fee was an optional payment intended to fund the lobbying activities of an APA affiliate, the American Psychological Association Practice Organization, according to the complaint.
     The APA allegedly created the affiliate to engage in lobbying activities otherwise forbidden to it as a tax-exempt nonprofit.
     Though the plaintiffs said they were misled to maximize lobbying funds, a federal judge in Washington sided with the APA after finding that members could not reasonably have believed the special assessment was mandatory.
     A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit revived unjust-enrichment claims Friday.
     “First, the name itself – ‘Special Assessment’ – suggested that payment was mandatory,” Judge Sri Srinivasan wrote for the court. “Second, the fact that the special assessment came with a preprinted amount on the form, both on its own line and as part of a subtotal combined with the regular dues, implied that the assessment, like the regular dues, was required for APA membership.”
     Members who renewed their memberships through the APA website were also not allowed to pay their dues without paying the special assessment fee, the court found.
     “A member might well have reasonably concluded that the emphatic ‘MUST PAY’ instruction for the special assessment was a shorthand equivalent of the ‘required for continuous membership’ language” in the instructions, rather than merely a “professional obligation,” as the APA claims in its defense, Srinivasan said.
     The court did, however, affirm dismissal of the plaintiffs’ California-law claims, and their request to add claims for rescission and negligent misrepresentation.

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