Law & Courts

High Court Declines Appeals From Teachers Seeking Union-Fee Refunds Based on ‘Janus’ Case

By Mark Walsh — January 25, 2021 4 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up appeals from teachers and other public employees who do not belong to their unions and sought to pursue refunds for years of collective-bargaining fees after the high court’s landmark 2018 decision barring the collection of such fees.

The court’s actions, while not a ruling on the merits of the cases, was a practical victory for the teachers’ unions and other public-employee labor organizations, who faced millions of dollars in financial liabilities if the objecting employees’ claims were revived.

The cases have been pursued with the backing of some of the same union opponents who were involved in the case that led to the court’s decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31.

In that 5-4 decision, the justices overruled a 1977 precedent, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, that had authorized the collection of agency fees from public employees who refuse to join their union. The Janus case involved an employee of a state agency, but the majority discussed at length its view that collective bargaining in education was a matter of public concern. Objecting employees could not be compelled under the First Amendment to help fund, through their collective-bargaining fees, union speech with which they disagreed, the court said.

The Janus decision put a dent in union treasuries as the so-called agency fees could no longer be collected from objecting employees. But the efforts to claw back years of past fees would likely have been far more onerous for the unions.

For example, in one of the appeals before the justices, an Illinois teacher sought class action status in her suit and some refunds of fees she paid to the National Education Association and its affiliates for some 30 years.

Stacey Mooney, a teacher in the Eureka Community School District No. 140, argued in court papers that she and others in her position should be able to recoup past collective-bargaining fees even if the unions collected them in good faith.

“No one gets to keep money or property that is taken in good faith but in violation of another’s constitutional rights,” said the teacher’s appeal to the Supreme Court in Mooney v. Illinois Education Association (Case No. 19-1126).

Mooney lost in federal district court and in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago. That court rejected her claim the same day in late 2019 that it turned away a similar claim for a refund of past fees by Mark Janus, the Illinois state employee whose lawsuit against the collection of such fees led to the Supreme Court overruling its Abood precedent.

Meanwhile, numerous other federal district and appeals courts were deciding similar cases seeking refunds of past fees, with virtually all siding with the unions.

In a case involving an Ohio teacher, Sarah R. Lee, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, held last year that even if the Supreme Court’s Janus decision might be considered retroactive under certain legal principles, the unions’ good-faith defense would overcome any retroactive remedy.

“The union was authorized by Ohio law and binding Supreme Court precedent to collect agency fees,” the 6th Circuit court held. “Until Janus said otherwise, the union had a legal right to receive and spend fair-share fees collected from nonmembers as long as it complied with state law and the Abood line of cases. It did not demonstrate bad faith when it followed these rules.”

In her appeal in Lee v. Ohio Education Association (No. 20-422), the teacher argues that “the need for this court to decide whether a good-faith defense exists … is especially urgent given the spate of agency-fee refund lawsuits that have been triggered by Janus.”

In a brief filed for its affiliates in the Ohio case, the NEA argues that the Supreme Court itself seems to have contemplated that its Janus decision would not be applied retroactively, which the union suggests “would expose public-employee unions to massive retrospective monetary liability.”

“The court in Janus framed its holding in prospective language,” says the NEA brief, which noted language in the Supreme Court’s opinion that the extraction of fees “cannot be allowed to continue” and that public-employee unions “may no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees.”

Besides denying review in the Illinois and Ohio teachers’ cases, the Supreme Court on Jan. 25 declined to hear the Illinois state worker’s followup case in Janus v. AFSCME (No. 19-1104) and two other appeals involving public employees seeking refunds, in Danielson v. Inslee (No. 19-1130), Casanova v. International Association of Machinists (No. 20-20), and Ogle v. Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (No. 20-486).

The justices did not comment on the orders denying review, though the court indicated that Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in any consideration of the Mooney, Janus, or Casanova cases, which all came from the 7th Circuit, her former court.

Alice O’Brien, the general counsel of NEA, noted in a statement that lower courts “have uniformly rejected attempts to hold unions liable for following the law as decided by the Supreme Court.”

“Today’s denials should be taken for what they are—the end of the road for the post-Janus line of litigation.”

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