Fourth Circuit Denies Fee Refund for Nonunion Teachers in Maryland

The federal appeals panel sided with teachers’ unions that charged Maryland educators fees regardless of their membership status before the Supreme Court blocked the practice.

(Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Nonunion Maryland public school teachers are not owed refunds for fees paid to public sector teachers’ unions, the Fourth Circuit ruled Monday.

Maryland teachers Ruth Akers and Sharon Moesel filed a class action against four teachers’ unions, Baltimore County Public Schools and several state officials in 2018 over fees they were forced to pay. 

The educators demanded refunds from the unions because they and other nonunion Maryland public school teachers were required to pay representation fees to unions in order to remain employees of their school systems. 

The teachers had decided not to join the unions but still paid fees, before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2018 decision Janus v. AFSCME that representation fees for nonmembers are prohibited. 

The district court dismissed the teachers’ case in April 2019 for failure to state a claim. The Fourth Circuit affirmed that decision on Monday and sided with the unions.

Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel of the Richmond-based appeals court, U.S. Circuit Judge Robert King found the unions acted in good faith at the time the fees were collected.

“In sum, consistent with the weight of authority from our sister circuits, we affirm the district court and rule that the union defendants are entitled to utilize the good-faith defense with respect to the plaintiffs’ Janus claim,” King, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote in the 14-page opinion. “As a result, the defendants are not required to refund the representation fees that the plaintiffs paid to the union defendants prior to the Janus decision.”

In its 5-4 landmark decision, the Supreme Court found that requiring nonunion employees to pay representation fees to public-sector unions violates the First Amendment because it forces those workers to support the union’s political speech.

 “The crux of the plaintiffs’ Janus claim is not that money was wrongfully taken from them, but rather that their money was used to subsidize the union defendants’ political and ideological activities,” King wrote. “For that reason, as the First, Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits have ruled, the tort of abuse of process is the most closely analogous tort, and good faith was recognized as a defense to that tort in 1871.”

In addition to accepting the unions’ good-faith argument, the Fourth Circuit judges noted the money the teachers are hoping to get back has likely already been spent.

“In this litigation, the plaintiffs seek to recover from the union defendants’ general treasury fund, and the plaintiffs concede that their representation fee payments have been commingled with other monies of the union defendants and have likely been spent. Therefore, the property that the plaintiffs seek to recover cannot clearly be traced to specific funds in the possession of the union defendants,” King wrote.

King was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Henry Floyd and Stephanie Thacker, both appointed by Barack Obama.

The unions named as defendants in the case include the Maryland State Education Association, Teachers Association of Baltimore County, National Education Association and Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.

In another case related to the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit ruled Monday that an Illinois union had not shown any concrete injury from the lack of dues from workers opting out of membership. The union argued Janus created “free-riders” who would be able to use union services without paying while making dues-paying members foot the bill.

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