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A Better Partnership
May 31, 2016

COA holds that Michigan Employment Relations Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over claims brought against union

In Susan R. Bank v. Michigan Education Association, No. 326668, the Court of Appeals held that because the Public Employee Relations Act (“PERA”), as amended in 2012, governs the imposition of contractual union obligations including dues,  a complaint regarding those obligations amounts to a complaint of an unfair labor practice under PERA.  Accordingly, such a claim falls within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (“MERC”). Furthermore, the Court of Appeals held that claims related to breach of duty of fair representation resulting from a union failing to inform its members of the effects of changes in the law should also be heard by MERC under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction.
 
Plaintiff, Susan R. Bank, is a teacher and member of both the Michigan Education Association and Novi Education Association. In 2002, she signed a “Continuing Membership Application” which authorized the deduction of dues and fees unless revoked in writing between August 1 and August 31 of any year. Plaintiff attempted to resign her membership in September of 2013, but her resignation was not accepted until a second written attempt in August of 2014. Plaintiff sought declarative and injunctive relief based on the 2012 PERA amendments, arguing that changes in the law rendered her contractual agreement to pay dues and resign only within the month of August unenforceable. Plaintiff further asserted that defendant’s failure to advise her of the change of law and its ramifications amounted to a breach of duty of fair representation. The trial court dismissed these central claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
 
The Court of Appeals agreed.  Even though Plaintiff’s primary claim involved contractual arguments, because the core of the claim was that the union violated PERA, the claim was about an “unfair labor practice.”  Because violations of unfair labor practices are  “remediable by MERC,” the Court of Appeals held that MERC had exclusive jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s primary claim. Accordingly, the trial court’s dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction was proper.
 
With respect to Plaintiff’s breach of duty of fair representation claim, the Court of Appeals held that MERC had jurisdiction pursuant to the Michigan Supreme Court’s three-part test for determining primary jurisdiction. First, the Court determined that MERC is preferable considering its specialized knowledge of an area of law further complicated by the recent PERA amendments. Second, the Court noted that defendant’s duty to inform its members of the effects of legal changes is a question of broad implications and one that MERC is already assessing, thus a judicial decision may interfere with MERC’s establishment of uniformity. Third, the Court held that the potential judicial resolution of the issue could adversely impact MERC’s performance of its regulatory duties. Accordingly, the trial court did not err in finding that MERC had primary jurisdiction.  Finally, the Court of Appeals held that the remainder of Plaintiff’s claims were moot.

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