Federal judge rejects public school teachers’ attempt to obtain refund of union fees

On April 30, a U.S. district court judge rejected an attempt by two New York state public school teachers to obtain refunds of fees they were required to pay to their union prior to Janus v. AFSCME. In Janus, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that compelling public-sector employees who are not union members to pay union fees (known as agency fees) constitutes a violation of their free-speech and associational rights under the First Amendment.

Who were the parties to the suit?

The plaintiffs were Scott Pellegrino and Christine VanOstrand, both of whom are public school teachers in New York state. Pellegrino was a dues-paying member of his union, but VanOstrand was not. The defendants were the New York State United Teachers, the United Teachers of Northport, the Northport-East Northport Union Free School District, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), Attorney General Letitia James (D), and John Wirenius (chair of the state public employment relations board).

The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) is the New York affiliate of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. On its website, NYSUT says it represents more than 600,000 current and former employees of the state’s schools, colleges, and healthcare facilities. The United Teachers of Northport (UTN) is an affiliate of NYSUT.

What was at issue?

On June 13, 2018, the plaintiffs filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. They sought the following from the court:

  1. A declaration that the plaintiffs had a constitutional right to refrain from joining, or giving financial support to, a union as a condition of employment
  2. A declaration that the state law allowing for the collection of agency fees was unconstitutional
  3. An injunction barring the union from collecting further agency fees
  4. Refunds of previously paid agency fees
  5. For Pellegrino, a refund of the portion of his previously paid dues equal to what he would have paid in agency fees had he not voluntarily joined the union

After the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Janus, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their claims on points 1, 2, and 3, as they were rendered moot.

How did the court rule?

Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled against the plaintiffs, citing the April 15 ruling of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Wholean v. CSEA SEIU Local 2001. Garaufis wrote, “Because Wholean is nearly identical to the case at hand, its holding–’that a party who complied with a directly controlling Supreme Court precedent in collecting fair-share fees cannot be held liable for monetary damages under § 1983’–completely forecloses Plaintiffs’ only remaining claim.”

Garaufis was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton (D).

What are the reactions, and what comes next?

Andy Pallotta, president of NYSUT, approved of the decision and criticized the parties behind this and similar lawsuits, saying, “These suits are part of a larger coordinated effort by anti-labor groups that want unions to spend the time and money to defend them so they can defund and distract us.”

Neither the plaintiffs nor their attorneys have commented publicly on the decision. It is unclear whether they will appeal.

The case name and number are Pellegrino v. New York State United Teachers (2:18-cv-03439).

What we’ve been reading

The big picture

Number of relevant bills by state

We are currently tracking 94 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.

  • California AB3096: Existing law prohibits public employers from deterring or discouraging public employees or applicants from becoming or remaining members of a union. This bill would extend that provision to the University of California.
    • Democratic sponsorship.
    • Assembly Public Employment and Retirement Committee reported favorably and re-referred to Assembly Appropriations Committee May 5.
  • New Jersey A3987: This bill would authorize public employers to grant unpaid leaves of absence to employees who are elected or appointed to service as union officers, if such leave is provided for in collective bargaining agreements. It would also authorize public employers to grant paid leaves of absence for this purpose, if such leave is provided for in collective bargaining agreements.
    • Republican sponsorship.
    • Introduced and referred to Assembly State and Local Government Committee.