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Policastro v. New Jersey Education Association

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 29, 2018



          PETER G. SHERIDAN, U.S.D.J.

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant R. Alexander Acosta, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 27). In April 2017, Plaintiff was a candidate for President of the New Jersey Education Association ("NJEA"), a state-wide union representing teachers. Plaintiff alleges that during the campaign, his opponents violated several NJEA election rules. (Cert, of Friedman, Ex. A, ECF No. 27-3).

         After exhausting his internal remedies with the NJEA, on June 28, 2017, Plaintiff filed a written complaint to the Office of Labor-Management Standards, U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL") asking the Secretary to investigate the alleged campaign violations. (Id.) Upon receipt of Plaintiff s complaint, the DOL initiated an investigation, assigning a complaint number and an investigator. (Cert, of Friedman, ECF No. 27-2, at ¶ 3). During the investigation, the DOL learned that the NJEA had not filed any "LM reports" with the DOL. (Id. at ¶ 4). These reports "disclose the labor organization's financial condition and operations for its preceding fiscal year." (Id.) The DOL reviewed the constitution and bylaws of the NJEA as well. (Id. at ¶ 5). Finally, a DOL representative contacted an NJEA administrator to determine whether the NJEA represented union members who were employed by private or parochial schools. (Id. at ¶ 6). The investigator was informed that the NJEA "does not represent any private or parochial school employees." (Cert, of Friedman, Ex. B, ECF No. 27-3).

         Based on that information, DOL concluded that the NJEA is not covered by Title IV of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, [1] and on July 20, 2017, sent a letter to Plaintiff explaining that it lacked jurisdiction over NJEA. (Cert, of Friedman, Ex. C, ECF No. 27-3). The DOL explained that:

the NJEA is composed exclusively of employees of various public-school districts in the State of New Jersey. The public-school districts are political subdivisions and do not meet the definition of employer within the meaning of Section 3(e) of the LMRDA. Since the [N]EA] represents only persons employed by the public-school districts, which are not employers under the LMRDA, the union is not subject to coverage under the LMRDA.


         Plaintiff brought this suit (1) to compel DOL to investigate the campaign violations; (2) to declare that a union representing public employees be subject to the requirements of the Act; and (3) so that the DOL be mandated to reopen his case. (Compl., ECF No. 1). In this summary judgment action, Defendant argues that DOL's determination that the NJEA is not covered by Title IV of the Act is in accordance with statutory intent, and if is not clear, then the Department's interpretation should be accorded deference. In response, Plaintiff points to a DOL proposed regulation that, if adopted, would change whether the Act applies to the NJEA; Plaintiff next argues the Chevron deference is "dead," so that DOL's interpretation regarding whether or not the NJEA is covered by the Act is not entitled to any deference.


         Summary judgment is appropriate under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c) when the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the evidence establishes the moving party's entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S.317, 322-23 (1986). "When reviewing agency action under the APA, the District Court 'sits as an appellate tribunal and the entire case on review is a question of law.'" Aybar v. Johnson, 295 F.Supp.3d 442, 451 (D.N.J. 2018) (quoting Soccer Centers, LLC v. Zuchowski, No. 17-1024, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169328, at *5 (D.N.J. Oct. 13, 2017)). Because "the administrative agency [was] the finder of fact, . . . [this Court] does not need to determine whether there are disputed facts to resolve at trial." Id. (quotation omitted). Thus, "[t]he Court's review is limited to the administrative record on which the agency based its decision." Id. (citing 5 U.S.C. § 706; Camp v. Pitts, 411 U.S. 138, 142 (1973)). "Summary judgment thus serves as the mechanism for deciding, as a matter of law, whether the agency action is supported by the administrative record and otherwise consistent with the APA standard of review." Id. (quoting Soccer Centers, LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169328, at *5).

         This court reviews an agency's decision under § 706 of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Christ the King Manor, Inc. v. Sec'y United States HHS, 730 F.3d 291, 305 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing CBS Corp. v. FCC, 663 F.3d 122, 137 (3d Cir. 2011)). Under § 706, courts "'hold unlawful and set aside agency action, findings, and conclusions'" that are '"arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.'" Christ the King Manor, Inc., 730 F.3d at 305 (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A)). "Under that restricted standard of review, [courts] must consider whether the agency 'examine[d] the relevant data and articulate[d] a satisfactory explanation for its action,' while being careful 'not to substitute [its own] judgment for that of the agency."' Id. (quoting Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n of U.S., Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983)).

         Courts may consider an agency action to be arbitrary and capricious, "if the agency has relied on factors which Congress has not intended it to consider, entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, offered an explanation for its decision that runs counter to the evidence before the agency, or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise." State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. at 43. The review of the agency's decision "must also be based on 'the administrative record [that was] already in existence' before the agency, not 'some new record made initially in the reviewing court' or 'post-hoc rationalizations' made after the disputed action." Christ the King Manor, Inc., 730 F.3d at 305 (quoting Rite Aid of Pa., Inc. v. Houstoun, 171 F.3d842, 851 (3dCir. 1999)).

         Although the Act does not set forth a specific provision on this issue, the Supreme Court has held that "courts are necessarily [not] without power or jurisdiction ... if it should clearly appear that the Secretary has acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner by ignoring the mandatory duty he owes plaintiffs under the powers granted by the Congress." Dunlop v. Bachowski, 421 U.S. 560, 566, 568 (1975). Thus, "a congressional purpose narrowly to limit the scope of judicial review of the Secretary's decision can, and should, be inferred in order to carry out congressional objectives in enacting the Act." Id. at 568. Accordingly, "the reviewing court is not authorized to substitute its judgment for the decision of the Secretary not to bring suit." Id. at 571.


         § 482 of the Act allows a member of a labor organization to file an administrative complaint with the Secretary of Labor for certain union election violations. 29 U.S.C. § 482(a). Upon receipt of such a complaint, the Secretary shall investigate and if he or she "finds probable cause to believe that a violation ... has occurred and has not been remedied ... he [or she] shall. . . bring a civil action ...

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