Federal Court Rejects Post-Janus Lawsuits Over Union Dues

A federal district court has dismissed a suit by several non-union New Jersey teachers seeking to recoup their union dues in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. The court also rejected arguments that teachers are entitled to withdraw from a dues collection agreement at any time. 

Legal Background

In Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, the U.S. Supreme Court held that public-sector “agency shop” arrangements run afoul of the First Amendment. The Court also expressly overruled its decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977), in which the Court previously held that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit governments from requiring non-union public employees to pay their “fair share” of dues for collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment.

Janus challenged the Illinois Public Relations Act, under which a union representing public employees collected dues from its members, but only “fair share” fees (a proportionate share of the costs of collective bargaining and contract administration) from non-member employees on whose behalf the union also negotiates. By a vote of 5-4, the Court struck down the statute as unconstitutional. “The state of Illinois’ extraction of agency fees from nonconsenting public-sector employees violates the First Amendment,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote on behalf of the majority. In reaching its decision, the majority reasoned that such a scheme “violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”

In response to Janus, New Jersey enacted the New Jersey Workforce Democracy Enhancement Act (“WDEA”), which sought to ensure that public unions are able to carry out their statutory duties by having access to and being able to communicate with the employees they represent. A provision of the new law specifically provides that an employee may revoke such an authorization by providing written notice to their public employer during the 10 days following each anniversary date of the employee’s employment. The public employer is then required to inform the union of the withdrawal, with the withdrawal taking effect on the 30th day after the anniversary date.

Facts of the Case

Plaintiffs Susan Fischer, Jeanette Speck, Leonardo Santiago, Michael C. Sandberg, Melissa H. Poulson, and Rachel Curcio (the “Member Plaintiffs”) are current or former New Jersey public school teachers who, following Janus, expressed objections to continued payment of membership dues to various local affiliates of the New Jersey Education Association (“NJEA”) and the National Education Association (“NEA”)(collectively, with the local affiliates, the “Union Defendants”).  

The Member Plaintiffs argue that their union dues authorization forms, which were signed before the Janusdecision, are invalid, and were not “freely given,” because employees were not afforded the option to abstain from paying any fees to the unions. Plaintiffs contend that, previously, employees were given an illusory choice between paying full union dues (with all privileges of union membership) or paying an 85-percent “fair share” representation fee (without the privileges of union membership).

The Member Plaintiffs also argue that the First Amendment gives member employees a right to withdraw from the union, and revoke union dues authorization at any given time, without restriction. Accordingly, they argue that the revocation requirements set forth in N.J.S.A. § 52:14-15.9e, as recently amended by the WDEA, unconstitutionally restrict employees’ First Amendment rights.

Meanwhile, Plaintiffs Ann Smith and Karl Hedenberg (the “Non-Member Plaintiffs”) are teachers who never joined the union for ideological reasons. They filed suit seeking a refund of agency fees paid prior to the Janusdecision.  The Non-Member Plaintiffs also asserted claims against the members of the New Jersey Public Employee Relations Commission (the “PERC Defendants”) and the Clearview Regional High School District Board of Education (the “Clearview BOE”).

Court’s Decision 

The federal court dismissed the two suits. “Ultimately, this Court finds that the union dues authorizations, signed by Plaintiffs, were valid and enforceable contracts,” U.S. District Judge Renee Marie Bumb wrote. “Additionally, because the Union Defendants’ deduction of representation fees from non-member employees was conducted in good-faith reliance on the Supreme Court decision overruled by JanusAbood v. Detroit Bd. Of Ed., 431 U.S. 209 (1977), the Court declines to order retrospective monetary relief.”

The court first rejected the contention that the Union Dues Authorization Forms signed before the Janus decision are invalid. “The Janus decision may have established a more appealing alternative for Plaintiffs than had previously existed under the Abood framework, but the existence of a better alternative does not invalidate prior signed contracts,” Judge Bumb explained. She further noted that District Courts around the country have already rejected similar claims based on the same reasoning that changes in intervening law do not invalidate an existing contract.

The court also rejected the argument that the First Amendment gives employees a right to resign union membership and cease paying dues without any temporal restrictions. Judge Bumb wrote:

It is possible that unreasonably restrictive or burdensome opt-out procedures could be found to impinge upon First Amendment rights, but this is not the case here.  The available resignation procedures give union members reasonable opportunities to exercise their First Amendment rights to resign from the union.  In fact, after the passage of the WDEA, Plaintiffs were apparently afforded a third possible resignation date (effective thirty days after the employee’s anniversary of employment). Plaintiffs, such as Ms. Curcio, may freely resign from the union, but they must do so under the terms of the Union Dues Authorization Forms.

 

The court did agree that the revocation language in the WDEA is unconstitutional. However, it further found that the Plaintiffs failed to establish standing to challenge the WDEA, because it has never been enforced against them to their detriment. “Based on the record, the member plaintiffs cannot establish that they have suffered (or are likely to suffer) an ‘injury-in-fact’ to their First Amendment rights,” Bumb wrote.

The Third Circuit will likely have the opportunity to address the issues, as the plaintiffs have indicated that they plan to appeal. Please check back for updates.

For more information about the court’s decision or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.

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