Unions cannot be liable for the collection of fair-share fees under pre-Janus law
A growing chorus of federal district courts have held that unions cannot be held liable for damages for collecting fair-share fees from public employees in accordance with existing state statutes prior to the Supreme Court’s holding that such fee requirements were unconstitutional.
In Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, 138 S. Ct. 2448 (2018), the Supreme Court overruled its longstanding precedent, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977), which had upheld a state statute requiring public employees to pay their fair share of their union’s costs of collective bargaining and contract administration.
The United States District Court for the Central District Illinois dismissed claims seeking damages for fair-share fees collected before the Janus decision, holding that the defendant unions were entitled to a good-faith defense to liability as a matter of law and rejecting the plaintiff’s many arguments as to why the good-faith defense did not apply. As the Court summarized, until the Supreme Court overruled Abood, “reliance on Abood was nothing less than justified reliance on the law of the land. The Court agrees with the other courts to have considered this question and holds Defendants’ good faith is established as a matter of law.” Mooney v. Ill. Educ. Ass’n, No. 1:18-cv-01439, 2019 WL _______ (C.D. Ill. Apr. 11, 2019),
The United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio came to the same conclusion, granting the Ohio Education Association’s motion to dismiss a complaint seeking damages for fair-share fees collected before Janus. The court reasoned that the union “collected fees under the binding precedent of Abood and the subsequent state statutes it spawned” and thus acted in good faith and “did not violate the United States Constitution.” Lee v. Ohio Educ. Ass’n, No. 1:18CV1420, 2019 WL 1323622, at *2 (N.D. Ohio Mar. 25, 2019).
In addition, on remand of the Janus case itself from the Supreme Court, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted summary judgment to AFSCME Council 31 on the plaintiff’s request for damages, holding that the union’s good-faith reliance on a statute that was constitutional under then-existing law was a complete defense. “AFSCME followed the law and could not reasonably anticipate that the law would change,” the court explained. Janus v. AFSCME, No. 15 C 1235, 2019 WL 1239780, at *3 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 18, 2019).