Court asked to consider two dues refund cases that divided lower court judges
Washington, DC (May 26, 2021) – With free legal aid from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, New Hampshire state employees Patrick Doughty and Randy Severance filed a reply brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in their case against a union that unconstitutionally forced them to pay union dues as a condition of their employment. The workers’ case is now fully briefed, and has been distributed to the justices to consider in their conference on June 10, 2021. The case will be reviewed alongside Wenzig, another Foundation-supported case involving unconstitutional union dues seizures from state employees.
Both the Doughty and Wenzig cases are against Service Employees International Union (SEIU) locals. They argue that the petitioners, who were not union members, are entitled to refunds of dues seized from their paychecks without their consent. The seizures violated the First Amendment under the Court’s landmark ruling in Janus v. AFSCME. In Janus, National Right to Work Foundation attorneys successfully argued that forcing public-sector employees to pay dues to a union they do not support violates their First Amendment rights to free speech and free association.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus made clear that public employees must affirmatively consent to union dues payments and knowingly waive their constitutional right not to pay. The Court also stated in its opinion that union officials had been on notice since the Foundation-won Knox v. SEIU case in 2012 that forced union dues in the public sector likely violated the First Amendment.
Foundation attorneys argue in these cases that longstanding precedent allows victims of First Amendment violations to sue for damages or restitution. Lower courts are divided on how to approach the legal questions presented in these challenges, which the petitions argue heightens the need for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue.
In Wenzig alone, the three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit had three separate interpretations of the workers’ case. One agreed with union lawyers’ legal argument for why they should get to keep dues seized from workers in violation of Janus. A second also found for union officials but rejected the first judge’s legal theory. The third dissented, rejecting the first two judges’ explanations altogether and favoring refunds for the workers.
Meanwhile in Doughty, the three judge panel rejected the union lawyer’s so-called “good faith” defense, but created yet another legal standard that justified SEIU bosses keeping the unconstitutionally seized dues.
Foundation attorneys argue that the Supreme Court must step in and clarify the confusion among the lower courts. The Doughty reply brief was submitted early so it can be considered for certiorari during the same conference as Wenzig, giving the justices a better sense of the disunity in the lower courts’ responses.
While the appellate-court decisions against the workers conflict with one another, Foundation Attorneys argue they also conflict with Supreme Court precedent. Their petition for certiorari in Doughty argues that the First Circuit went searching for a reason why union bosses’ violations of workers’ First Amendment rights didn’t need to be remedied by the courts, and crafted such a reason by incorrectly applying the standards used in common-law torts, an entirely different type of violation. Then, the judges reasoned, under those standards union bosses’ actions could be justified because they had relied on the ill-gotten dues money to fund their operations. But the Supreme Court in Janus already rejected the reliance argument. The workers’ petition for certiorari asks the Supreme Court to overrule these decisions at odds with the Court’s own rulings.
“Once again, Foundation attorneys are asking the Supreme Court to rule that money taken from workers’ pockets to fund unions they do not support should be returned,” said National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation President Mark Mix. “The several lower court judges in these cases before the court have been unable to agree on the legal principles that apply. It is now time for the justices to set the record straight.”
“The Supreme Court should take up this issue and side with workers who were forced for years to pay dues to union officials in violation of the First Amendment,” Mix added. “Even if the Supreme Court does rule that public employees are entitled to refunds, because of the statute of limitations union bosses will still only be returning a small portion of the billions of dollars nationwide that were unlawfully stolen from public employees’ paychecks.”