Ballotpedia’s Union Station: Third Circuit rejects challenge to class action suit over union fees

Third Circuit rejects challenge to class action suit over union fees

On Jan. 15, 2021, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania’s decision in Bethany LaSpina v. SEIU Pennsylvania State Council et al. The lower court had dismissed the case, ruling that LaSpina did not have standing to bring a class action suit against SEIU seeking refunds of union fees.    

Parties to the suit

The plaintiff is Bethany LaSpina, a Scranton Public Library employee. The defendants are the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Pennsylvania State Council, SEIU Local 668, SEIU Local 32BJ, SEIU Healthcare PA, Pennsylvania Joint Board of Workers United, Scranton Public Library, and the Lackawanna County Public Library System.

What’s at issue, and how the lower court ruled

On Oct. 18, 2018, Bethany LaSpina filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The plaintiff asked the court to certify two classes:

  • Public employees forced to pay fees to SEIU affiliates as a condition of employment (including non-members charged fair-share fees, members who were not told they had a right to decline membership, and members who would not have joined if non-members were not charged fair-share fees). 
    • LaSpina sought refunds for all union fees collected from this class. 
  • Employees who wished to resign union membership, who would resign if told they had a right to decline, or who would not join if told of their right to decline. 
    • LaSpina asked the court to stop SEIU affiliates from withholding dues until the union obtained new fee waivers informing employees of their rights under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME ruling.

On Sept. 30, 2019, Judge Malachy Mannion, a Barack Obama (D) appointee, dismissed the plaintiff’s claims for lack of standing and mootness.

About Janus and Abood: On June 27, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 5-4 decision in Janus v. AFSCME. The court ruled that public-sector unions cannot compel the non-member employees they represent to pay fees to cover the costs of non-political union activities. Janus overturned the precedent established in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in 1977. In that case, the court ruled that requiring employees to pay fees to support union activities did not violate the employees’ First Amendment rights. These fees were commonly referred to as agency fees or fair-share fees.

How the Third Circuit ruled

The three-judge panel—Judges Cheryl Ann Krause, Felipe Restrepo, and Stephanos Bibas—unanimously affirmed the district court’s ruling. 

Writing for the court, Restrepo said

LaSpina had no standing to seek a refund of any portion of the Union dues she made prior to Janus because she cannot tie the payment of those dues to the Union’s unconstitutional deduction of fair-share fees from nonmembers. In addition, if LaSpina is due a refund of certain monies that were deducted from her wages after she resigned, the claim is not a federal one; rather, it is, if anything, a state court claim for conversion or trespass to chattels. Finally, LaSpina’s claim that the Union may not collect any dues from an employee until that employee knowingly and freely waives their constitutional right to resign from Union membership and withhold payments to the Union is moot as LaSpina no longer is a Union member.

Krause and Restrepo are Obama appointees. Bibas was appointed by Donald Trump (R).

What comes next

LaSpina has not commented on whether she will appeal the Third Circuit’s decision. The case and number are Bethany LaSpina v. SEIU Pennsylvania State Council et al. (19-3484). 

What we’re reading

The big picture

Number of relevant bills by state

We are currently tracking 28 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. 

Number of relevant bills by current legislative status

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

Recent legislative actions

Below is a complete list of relevant legislative actions taken since our last issue.

  • Maryland HB374: This bill would extend collective bargaining rights to faculty at Baltimore City Community College.
    • Democratic sponsorship.
    • House Appropriations Committee hearing scheduled for Jan. 27. 
  • Maryland HB486: This bill would make revisions to the collective bargaining process for employees of the University System of Maryland.  
    • Democratic sponsorship.
    • Introduced and referred to House Appropriations Committee Jan. 15. 
  • Maryland SB9: This bill would make revisions to the collective bargaining process for employees of the University System of Maryland.
    • Democratic sponsorship.
    • Senate Finance Committee hearing scheduled for Feb. 4. 
  • Maryland SB138: This bill would extend collective bargaining rights to employees of the Baltimore County Public Library.
    • Democratic sponsorship. 
    • Senate Finance Committee hearing scheduled for Feb. 4.
  • Montana HB168: This bill would prohibit a public employer from deducting union dues or fees from an employee’s paycheck without that employee’s express consent, which an employee can withdraw at any time.
    • Republican sponsorship. 
    • Introduced Jan. 14. House Business and Labor Committee hearing scheduled for Jan. 22.
  •  Washington SB5133: This bill amends the definition of a “confidential employee” for the purposes of collective bargaining.
    • Democratic sponsorship. 
    •  Senate Labor, Commerce, and Tribal Affairs Committee hearing Jan. 18.




About the author

Jerrick Adams

Jerrick Adams is a staff writer at Ballotpedia. Contact us at editor@ballotpedia.org.