Granted case challenged as “moot”
on Oct 25, 2011 at 5:16 pm
A California labor union local has asked the Supreme Court to put an end to a significant case on the fees that non-union workers must pay to unions representing them — a case the Court had agreed last June to hear, but has not yet scheduled for argument. The union chapter — California Local 1000 of the Service Employees International Union –told the Court that it has offered to refund all of the fees previously assessed, and to pay each worker who asks for a refund $1 in “nominal damages.” That is all that the workers could gain even if they won the case, the new filing contended, so the case is now “moot” — that is, it is legally dead. The workers involved, however, are resisting the challenge, arguing that the maneuver is a “last-ditch effort” to avoid losing the case.
The Court may consider as early as its Conference this Friday the motion to dismiss the case of Knox v. SEIU Local 1000 (docket 10-1121). The case was taken to the Court by eight Californians, representing a legal class of some 36,000 present and former public employees for California state and local government agencies, urging the Court to provide new legal protection for non-union workers faced with a special assessment of fees to help underwrite what they claim was political activity by the union, activity to which the non-unionists object.
The case is the latest in a series, going back primarily to 1977, in which the Court has been working out how to define which activities of labor unions are closely enough related to their collective bargaining duties that all of a company’s workers — including those not in the union but still represented by it — can be required to pay dues or fees to fund those activities. The Court has drawn a rather general line, between dues or fees that go directly to pay for bargaining activity or that benefit all workers, and money that is used to advance the union’s own political or ideological goals or ambitions or its lobbying on, say, social issues.
As the Knox case has been unfolding before the Court, it has shaped up as a test, first, of unions’ obligation to properly notify its workers of its plans to make a special fee assessment, and, second, a test of its duty not to assess such fees against non-members who do not support the political activity that could be financed with the money.
In now urging the Court to dismiss the case, Local 1000’s lawyers said that, on September 29, it mailed out notice to each of those in the class that sued, telling them that it will refund all of the fees each of them had paid between September 1, 2005, and June 30, 2006. Although a federal District judge had ordered the local to refund only the part of the fees that would have been spent on political activity unrelated to collective bargaining, the local said, it was now ready to refund 100 percent of the fees. All the workers needed to do, it added, was to send a letter to the union asking for a refund, and supplying identifying information, by no later than November 18.
With each letter, the local added, it had attached a $1 bill — easily detachable — that would cover the “nominal damages” that the federal judge had ordered.
Although the union had lost before that judge in the District Court, it had won the case in the Ninth Circuit Court. The appeals court ruled that the local had no legal duty to provide a new notice of the special fee assessment, because it had earlier provided adequate notice of what would happen on fee assessments. It also decided that the amount of money the temporary, special assessment would raise would cover activities closely enough related to the interests of all of the workers to be valid.
This new move, the local’s attorneys told the Supreme Court, means that the eight individuals and the class they represent “have received all of the relief that would be available to them following any decision in their favor by this Court.” In fact, the lawyers argued, the workers are being provided with more than the local was obliged to do, since it will refund the full amount of the assessment to each of the workers who seeks a refund.
The non-union workers, in their response, urged the Court to reject the dismissal motion, but, at a minimum, to keep the case alive until an oral argument has been held. The local’s new arguments can be considered at that time, the workers’ counsel said.
The response blasted the local’s new move as an attempt “to play ducks and drakes with the judiciary. It is desperate. It is a half-measure. And, most importantly, it is futile.” The response went on to argue that the case is not moot, because the non-union remain subject to the local’s “authority to collect forced dues,” which it could invoke at any time. By gluing a $1 bill to the refund offer letters, the workers’ lawyer said, the local was attempting a “crude substitute” for providing nominal damages. Such damages are not designed to cover for a financial injury, but to vindicate workers’ rights. The union “cannot stymie” a worker’s vindication of his rights “by simply handing him a dollar bill. That fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the nominal-damages remedy.”
Finally, the workers’ counsel contended that the local has not offered everything that the non-union workers seek by their lawsuit, since the offer “contains a number of strings and caveats that reduce the likelihood of a given class member ever seeing a refund.”
Reacting to the workers’ opposition, the union local contended in its reply brief that they had not sought any future relief, so they are not entitled to keep the case going because of a concern that new fee assessments might later be made. It also argued that, by sending each member of the class a $1 bill, the union has actually finished paying the “nominal damages” the federal judge had ordered.