Federal judge dismisses two class-action lawsuits seeking repayment of agency fees

On Nov. 27, Judge Renee Bumb, of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, dismissed two class-action lawsuits in which the plaintiffs sought repayment of agency fees paid to their unions before the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Janus v. AFSCME. In Janus, the high court held that unions cannot compel members or represented workers to pay union fees.

Who are the parties to the suit?

  • Smith v. New Jersey Education Association
    • Plaintiffs: Ann Smith, Leonardo Santiago, Michael C. Sandberg, Karl Hedenberg, Melissa H. Poulson, and Rachel Curcio, all current or former public school teachers in New Jersey.
    • Defendants: New Jersey Education Association, National Education Association, Clearview Education Association, Harrison Township Education Association, Clearview Regional High School District Board of Education, Gov. Phil Murphy (D), and the members of the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission (Joel M. Weisblatt, Paul Boudreau, Paula B. Voos, John Bonanni, and David Jones).
  • Fischer v. Murphy
    • Plaintiffs: Susan Fischer and Jeanette Speck, both current or former public school teachers.
    • Defendants: Gov. Phill Murphy (D), New Jersey Education Association, and Township of Ocean Education Association.

What is at issue? Plaintiffs Smith and Hedenberg were compelled to pay union fees prior to Janus. They sought repayment of those fees, which they argued were collected unconstitutionally without their affirmative consent. The other plaintiffs contested a provision of the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act, a New Jersey law enacted in 2018. The plaintiffs argued that the law unconstitutionally restricts the time and circumstances under which employees can withdraw from their unions and revoke their dues deduction authorizations.

How did the court rule? Because the two cases dealt with similar issues, Bumb issued a joint ruling covering both. Regarding the claim for refunds of previously paid union fees, Bumb wrote, “While Plaintiffs’ arguments are well-taken, this Court finds that the Union Defendants would prevail based upon their good-faith belief that these agency fee deductions, which were sanctioned by the Supreme Court in Abood, complied with statutory and constitutional law.”

Regarding plaintiffs’ arguments against the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act, Bumb wrote, “If Plaintiffs demonstrated that State Defendant or the Union Defendants were using the WDEA’s revocation language to override and narrow contractually agreed upon resignation rights, such enforcement would certainly have established injury. However, no such circumstances existed in these matters.”

What are the reactions?

  • Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Foundation, which represented the plaintiffs in Fischer v. Murphy, said his organization expected to appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
  • As of Dec. 6, none of the defendants have made public statements about the ruling.

Case information: Bumb was appointed to the bench in 2006 by President George W. Bush. The case names and numbers are Smith v. New Jersey Education Association (18-10381) and Fischer v. Murphy (18-15628).

The big picture

Number of relevant bills by state

We are currently tracking 106 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.

Union Station map December 6, 2019.png

Number of relevant bills by current legislative status

Union Station status chart December 6, 2019.png

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

Union Station partisan chart December 6, 2019.png

Recent legislative actions

Below is a complete list of legislative actions taken since our last issue. Bills are listed in alphabetical order, first by state then by bill number.

  • Virginia HB67: This bill would limit an existing prohibition against government employee strikes to law-enforcement officers.
    • Introduced Dec. 5.