Mark Janus‘ name is now enshrined in the annals of American law as the Supreme Court plaintiff who took on and beat public-sector unions. He wants to do it again.
The 2018 ruling known simply as Janus freed nonunion public employees from being forced to pay union dues, which the unions called “fees.” Mr. Janus now wants to claw back some of the money the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees took from him before his Supreme Court victory.
“What we’re trying to do is get back the money they took from me without my permission,” Mr. Janus told The Washington Times. “You took this money from me illegally, according to the Supreme Court, so even if it was only $50, I’d fight on the principle of it.”
His lawsuit seeks relatively paltry amounts of money, though it could add up to a hefty sum for unions if they have to repay all the fees collected from nonunion government workers across the country.
Thus far, Mr. Janus’ crusade for reimbursement has not gone well. A federal court in Illinois and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit accepted the union’s “good faith” defense that the money it collected when the law required the payments still belongs to the union.
Since his triumph in the Supreme Court, Mr. Janus has crisscrossed the country speaking to workers and other groups about their rights. He has become a sort of ambassador for the Liberty Justice Center, the nonprofit libertarian legal firm that represents him.
“A friend of mine jokes that I’m the only person to have been in The Wall Street Journal so much and not have been under indictment,” he said.
In his travels, Mr. Janus encountered many government workers ignorant about his victory — and attempts by unions and their allies to keep it that way.
“I find a lot of people out there who feel the same way I do,” he said. “But there are an awful lot of people who don’t know about it, and, of course, you have employers putting up gag orders about it in New York, California and some other states.”
Indeed, several Democrat-run states enacted laws to kneecap the Supreme Court’s decision.
In 2019, the Washington State Legislature passed a bill that offered legal protection to unions regarding their collections of fees and permitted a narrow window for public employees to opt out of the union.
Neither Mr. Janus nor most of the plaintiffs in more than 50 similar lawsuits wending their way through the federal system seek the return of all of the money taken for union fees. Plaintiffs’ claims are restricted to a period determined by their state’s statute of limitation.
“Our position is [the ruling] is retroactive, that the Supreme Court is, in fact, deciding what the law has always been,” said Bill Messenger, a lawyer with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation who is on Mr. Janus’ legal team. “The biggest thing we have going in our favor is the Janus ruling itself.
Lawsuits like Mr. Janus’ are active in every federal judicial circuit.
Debbie Schultz, a retired public employee in Minnesota, is a plaintiff in one of two class-action lawsuits that the Liberty Justice Center has filed seeking the return of pre-Janus fees.
“I always hated to pay those union fees. I worked in an office and I did my job,” she said. “They too often represented the ones who should have been fired and made the office that much more caustic.”
Ms. Schultz is a plaintiff against AFCSME Council 5.
The union council declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
All told, the Minnesota class-action lawsuits, the second against the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees could reach $19 million, according to estimates by the Liberty Justice Center.
From the beginning of his initial legal action, Mr. Janus said the unions could foresee that he would win his case, and he said some advised union officials to put collected fees in escrow at that time.
“They chose not to do that,” Mr. Janus said. “So I think it’s a bit of a stretch to claim good faith now because it’s not like they couldn’t see what might be coming.”
In any event, Mr. Janus insists he bears no ill will toward unions or their mission.
“I am not anti-union and never have been,” he said. “If someone wants to join a union, that’s fine. It’s up to them. This is about First Amendment freedom.”
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