County must deduct contributions to Association even though the payments went to a PAC says 4th Court of Appeals.

 

Bexar County Texas v. Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County, 04-13-00316-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, January 22, 2014).

This is an appeal from a declaratory action judgment where the trial court ordered the County to make certain payroll deductions which the County asserted were impermissible political action committee contributions. The San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court judgment.

In the collective bargaining agreement between Bexar County and the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County (“Association”), the County agreed to deduct association membership dues from payroll. The Association also formed a general purpose political action committee (“PAC”) which the deputies have the option of contributing to. When the Bexar County Auditor became aware that deputies were authorizing deductions which ultimately were given to the PAC, he refused to process the deductions. The Association sought a declaration the contributions were not unlawful and should be processed. After a bench trial, the trial court issued such a declaration and the County appeals.

The crux of the case turns on the interpretation of Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code §155.001(a)(2) noting that deductions can only be made for certain purposes. The County argued that it authorized deduction for membership dues and the PAC contributions do not qualify. While the Association can make PAC contributions from its general funds when the PAC contributions are reported in the names of the individual members, the County argued it exceeds statutory authority because it is deducting something other than “membership dues.” The Association’s position is that the ten dollars that is ultimately transferred to the PAC is a voluntary portion of its membership dues.

Using statutory construction principles the court determined that under §155.00a(a)(2), “membership” is the “status” of being a member and a due is the “fee . . . required” for that status. Nothing in the definition of “membership dues” forecloses that an organization can maintain multiple tiers of required and optional membership statuses.  Therefore, a “membership due” is any amount that is paid in exchange for the status or benefits of membership. As a result, the voluntary contribution is one of the options for membership that provides an opportunity for greater participation in the union’s political activity. Further, the statute concerns only the character of a payment at the time of the payroll deduction, not at the time of some subsequent disposition (such as into a PAC).  Here, the funds are membership dues at the time of the payroll deduction. The contribution transaction is an internal matter handled by the Association’s treasurer wherein membership dues are transferred from one union account to another. As a result, the judgment against the County is affirmed.

As to the attorney’s fees issued, the County argues that it is “equitable and just” for both sides to bear their own costs. It contends that it was not “equitable and just” to award fees to the Association because the County acted in good faith reliance on its interpretation of the law and a prior attorney general opinion interpreting a similar statute. The 4th Court disagreed noting that good faith reliance is not necessarily determinable. The County did not establish the award was arbitrary so the attorneys’ fee award stands.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Before Justices Stone, Barnard, and Alvarez; opinion by Chief Justice Stone.   The attorneys listed for Bexar County are Albert Pena and Lowell Denton.  The attorney listed for the Association is David Van Os.