Federal court considers case over refund of previously paid agency fees

Note: This story concerns a lawsuit following up on the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME. The case that is the subject of this story has the same name but is distinct.

On September 20, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit heard oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, a case involving the refund of agency fees paid to unions before the Supreme Court of the United States disallowed the compulsory collection of such fees in a 2018 ruling.

Who are the parties to the suit, and what is at issue? The plaintiff is Mark Janus, who was also the plaintiff in Janus v. AFSCME, the similarly named 2018 case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that compelling workers to pay fees to a union is an unconstitutional infringement of their free-speech and associational rights. The defendant is the American Federation of State, Court, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). In the present suit, Janus is seeking a refund of the fees he had been required to pay to AFSCME prior to the high court’s 2018 ruling. He points to Harris v. Quinn, a 2014 decision by the high court that struck down an Illinois statute compelling a specific class of home healthcare workers to pay fees to the Service Employees International Union. Janus claims that the high court’s ruling in Harris suggested the ultimate unconstitutionality of agency fees. He also argues that unions were not acting in good faith when they continued to collect agency fees and, therefore, should be held liable for refunds.

How did the lower court rule in this case? On March 18, Judge Robert Gettleman, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, ruled that public-sector unions cannot be required to refund agency fees paid to them before the Supreme Court issued its decision in Janus. Gettleman, who was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton, rejected the arguments put forth by Janus: “Defendants’ action [sic] were in accord with a constitutionally valid state statute. Nothing presented by plaintiff prevents application of that defense to defendant AFSCME. Defendant AFSCME followed the law and could not reasonably anticipate that the law would change.” Gettleman’s decision prompted the appeal that is presently being considered by the appellate panel.

What comes next? A decision is pending by the appellate panel, which comprises Judges Diane Wood, Daniel Manion, and Ilana Rovner. Wood, Marion, and Rovner were appointed by Presidents Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, respectively.

In other news

Earlier this week, we reported on Alaska’s newly announced opt-in membership policy for public-sector unions representing state employees. We now want to bring you up to speed on how public-sector unions in the state are reacting to the news.

Jake Metcalfe, president of the Alaska State Employees Association, which represents 4,930 members, told KTUU that the union would seek a temporary restraining order to bar enforcement of the September 26 order. On October 4, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller issued that order. Miller was appointed by Governor Sean Parnell, a Republican.

In response to this development, Metcalfe said, “Our position is the right position. The governor was trying to take rights away from his own employees and that’s never a good thing.”

Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills said, “We are disappointed with the ruling, though we will, of course, abide by the court’s order. The Attorney General continues to stand behind his opinion, and the state will continue to pursue the case to get final resolution on this important constitutional question.”

The big picture

Number of relevant bills by state

We are currently tracking 102 pieces of legislation dealing with public-sector employee union policy. On the map below, a darker shade of green indicates a greater number of relevant bills. Click here for a complete list of all the bills we’re tracking.

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Number of relevant bills by current legislative status

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Number of relevant bills by partisan status of sponsor(s)

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Recent legislative actions

No legislative actions have occurred since our last issue.