Federal appellate court rejects attempt to obtain refund of union fees paid prior to Janus v. AFSCME

On April 15, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected an attempt by two Connecticut state employees to obtain refunds of fees they were required to pay to their union prior to Janus v. AFSCME. In Janus, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that compelling employees to pay union fees violates their First Amendment rights.

Who were the parties to the suit?

The plaintiffs were Kiernan J. Wholean and James A. Grillo, both Connecticut state employees. They were represented by attorneys from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. The defendants were CSEA SEIU Local 2001 and the following state officials: Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management Benjamin Barnes, Undersecretary of Labor Relations Sandra Fae Brown-Brewton, Commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Robert Klee, and Comptroller Kevin Lembo.

What was at issue?

On June 13, 2018, the plaintiffs filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, alleging that being required to pay fees to CSEA SEIU Local 2001 violated their First Amendment rights. On June 27, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its ruling in Janus. As a result, the union stopped collecting fees from the plaintiffs and refunded all fees collected post-Janus. The plaintiffs amended their complaint, seeking refunds of all fees paid prior to Janus. The defendants moved to dismiss.

On April 26, 2019, the district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, finding that the plaintiffs’ claims were moot in light of Janus. The district court also ruled the union had acted in good faith, and in accordance with existing precedent, in collecting fees prior to Janus and was, therefore, not bound to issue refunds. The plaintiffs appealed this decision to the Second Circuit, arguing that under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a good-faith defense “cannot be implied because a First Amendment violation does not turn on a violator’s motive and there is no analogous common law tort from which a good-faith defense may be extrapolated.” The plaintiffs also argued the union should have anticipated the Janus decision and stopped collecting fees on that basis.

How did the court rule?

Judges Jose Cabranes, Raymond Lohier, and Christina Reiss unanimously affirmed the district court’s decision. Writing for the court, Reiss said, “We hold that a party who complied with directly controlling Supreme Court precedent in collecting fair-share fees cannot be held liable for monetary damages under § 1983.”

Reiss also said, “Contrary to Appellants’ second argument on appeal, Appellees cannot reasonably be deemed to have forecasted whether, when, and how Abood might be overruled. Instead, they were entitled to rely on directly controlling Supreme Court precedent, and in good faith, they did so.”

Lohier and Reiss were appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama (D). Cabranes was first appointed to the federal judiciary by President Jimmy Carter (D). He was later appointed to the Second Circuit by President Bill Clinton (D).

The case name and number are Wholean v. CSEA SEIU Local 2001, 19-1563.

What we’ve been reading

The big picture

Number of relevant bills by state

We are currently tracking 93 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

Below is a complete list of relevant legislative actions taken since our last issue. Bills are listed in alphabetical order, first by state, then by bill number. The partisan affiliation of bill sponsor(s) is also provided.

  • Virginia HB582: This bill would repeal the existing prohibition against collective bargaining by public employees.
    • Democratic sponsorship.
    • Governor’s recommendations adopted and enacted April 22.
  • Virginia SB939: This bill would permit local governments to recognize unions as bargaining agents for public-sector workers.
    • Democratic sponsorship.
    • Governor’s recommendations adopted and enacted April 22.