Four Foundation-backed cert petitions now filed at High Court with millions at stake

From National Right to Work’s January 2021 Defense Action Newsletter:

WASHINGTON, DC – Across the nation, public employees continue to seek free legal aid from National Right to Work Foundation staff attorneys, to fight for their First Amendment rights recognized in the landmark Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court ruling. Janus was argued and won by Foundation staff attorneys.  

Janus affirmed that public employees cannot be required to subsidize union activities as a condition of employment and that union payments can only be deducted with an employee’s freely given consent. 

Despite this clear ruling, union bosses have almost without exception refused to return money seized from workers in violation of the First Amendment. In response, Foundation staff attorneys are now assisting workers in more than a dozen cases seeking to force union officials to return illegal forced fees to tens of thousands of employees, with four such cases now pending at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Union Officials Refuse to Refund Illegally Seized Dues Post-Janus

In November, attorneys for Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection employees Kiernan Wholean and James Grillo filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court. It is asking the Justices to hear their case, seeking back years of union dues that they and their coworkers were forced to pay to Service Employees International Union (SEIU) union bosses in violation of the First Amendment. Their petition follows one filed in October for Ohio Department of Taxation employee Nathaniel Ogle, whose case seeks to require AFSCME union bosses to similarly return forced fees seized in violation of the Janus standard from potentially thousands of Ohio government employees.

With these two new cert petitions, there are now seven pending before the Supreme Court on this issue, four of which were filed for workers by Foundation staff attorneys. That includes the continuation of the original Janus case brought by Mark Janus. 

If the Supreme Court decides to hear any one of these cases, a favorable ruling would create another groundbreaking precedent, potentially prompting the return in Foundation cases alone of over $130 million to employees fighting to get back money taken in contravention of their Janus rights.

Wholean and Grillo, who are not members of SEIU, originally filed their case in 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut shortly before the High Court decided Janus. The State ceased deducting dues from their paychecks for SEIU following a letter to the State Comptroller from a National Right to Work Foundation attorney, which threatened legal action for any dues deductions from non-members that continued after Janus. 

However, SEIU union officials continue to refuse to refund dues that they took from Wholean, Grillo and other non-members in violation of the Janus First Amendment standard before the decision, even though they knew the employees never consented to pay.

Ogle filed his case at the District Court for the Southern District of Ohio just after Janus was decided. Like Wholean and Grillo, he was never a member of the union but had mandatory union fees deducted from his paychecks. The Ohio affiliate of the national AFSCME union has around 30,000 public employees across the Buckeye State under its bargaining monopoly. If a class is eventually certified in Ogle’s case, it could potentially include thousands of workers.

Foundation Attorneys:  High Court Must Reject Union Attempts to Dodge Janus

Kiernan Wholean and James Grillo
Connecticut public employees Kiernan Wholean (left) and James Grillo are fighting at the Supreme Court for their and their coworkers’ Janus rights, which SEIU officials violated for years.

Lower courts in these and other lawsuits have accepted union lawyers’ so-called “good faith” contentions for letting union bosses keep the dues collected in violation of the non-members’ constitutional rights. This is at odds with the Supreme Court’s Janus ruling, which did not proscribe retroactive relief. Indeed, it observed that union officials have been “on notice” for years that mandatory fees likely would not comply with the High Court’s heightened level of First Amendment scrutiny, articulated in the 2012 Supreme Court decision in the Foundation’s Knox v. SEIU case. 

Foundation staff attorneys point out in the petitions before the Supreme Court that a “good faith” defense has never existed under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, the statute under which these lawsuits are brought. Section 1983 specifically imposes liability on those who violate the constitutional rights of others while acting “under color of” existing law.

Not all judges, however, have been convinced by union officials’ dubious “good faith” argument for keeping the unconstitutionally seized payments. In Wenzig, another Foundation-backed case, a majority of a Third Circuit panel denied the existence of such a defense. In a supplemental brief, Foundation attorneys cited the confusion among lower courts as a significant reason the court should hear the continuation of Janus.

“With seven petitions on this issue now pending with the High Court and more to be filed soon, it is time the Supreme Court hears this issue and ends the denial of justice for tens of thousands of non-member government employees whose First Amendment rights were violated,” commented National Right to Work Foundation President Mark Mix. “Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, the federal statute under which all these cases were filed, was specifically intended to allow individuals to remedy the deprivation of their rights when it occurs under color of law. It’s outrageous that union bosses have thus far been allowed to keep money seized in violation of the First Amendment because it was authorized by then-existing but unconstitutional law. 

“That result is especially specious because, as the Supreme Court recognized in Janus, union bosses have been ‘on notice’ since 2012 that forcing government employees to pay union fees was likely unconstitutional,” Mix added.