The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a recent pair of decisions of interest to anyone who followed last year’s Janus Supreme Court union-dues case and might be interested in its implications for Illinois public employees. Specifically, the appeals court said that despite the 2018 SCOTUS ruling, union nonmembers aren’t entitled to recover any past dues they’ve paid.
One of the most widely followed and controversial Supreme Court cases of 2018 was the Illinois case of Janus vs. AFSCME, which held that public employees who had opted out of union membership could not be forced to pay “fair share” fees that supported union political activities with which they disagreed. The Janus decision reversed decades of SCOTUS precedent that held that public unions had the right to collect fees from all state workers regardless of their choice to participate in the union, as well as the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act which had relied on that jurisprudence.
As a result of the SCOTUS ruling, Illinois agencies and other public employers were required to cease deducting “fair share” dues on behalf of public unions from the paychecks of plaintiff Mark Janus, a state employee, and similarly situated nonmember employees. Subsequently, Janus and another state employee plaintiff, public school teacher Stacey Mooney, brought separate class-action lawsuits to recover their back dues, which they claimed had been taken from them unconstitutionally while the public unions, AFSCME and the Illinois Education Association, enjoyed a windfall.
Unfortunately for them, the Illinois federal courts did not see things their way.
Writing for the Seventh Circuit panel, Judge Diane Wood said that the Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus opinion turned only on the First Amendment rights of the plaintiff, and there was no indication that it was intended to apply retroactively. Additionally, AFSCME had collected his and other state employees’ fair-share fees in good faith while relying on longstanding Supreme Court precedent and Illinois statutory law, which gave them the express right to do so. Thus it would be unfair to require them to repay back dues to plaintiffs.
Judge Wood noted that this conclusion aligns with a nationwide judicial consensus that unions that collected these fees for many years in accordance with their own state laws and SCOTUS are allowed to assert a good-faith defense to financial liability.
Whether this issue will ultimately end up back at the Supreme Court remains to be seen.