Boston Teamsters' Extortion Convictions Reversed on Appeal

By George Khoury, Esq. on September 14, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The two Boston teamsters, Joseph Burhoe and John Perry, who were convicted in 2014 on federal union extortion charges have had their convictions reversed and cases remanded by the First Circuit Court of Appeals. The 75-page opinion provides an interesting glance into the nuanced complexity surrounding the issue of union extortion.

In short, the two teamsters were found guilty of extortion after a trial where it was proved that they threatened to picket businesses unless those businesses hired union workers. However, on appeal, a bad jury instruction proved terminal to the federal government's case, though it may not actually be over for the pair of union advocates, as other counts were affirmed.

Conjunctive Disjunctive Junction

Of paramount significance in the case was the jury instruction covering when threatening to picket can constitute extortion. According to the First Circuit's reading of the current law, the threat to picket a business for not hiring union workers can only be considered as extortion when the jobs being sought by the union are "no show" or "fictitious" jobs. Essentially, the law seems to be aimed at preventing mobster style, organized crime and corruption.

The jury instruction allowed the jury to find extortion without also finding that the work being sought was fictitious, due to an improper disjunctive jury instruction. The court explained:

It follows that the district court erred in instructing the jury that it could find extortion where the defendants sought to obtain "imposed, unwanted, superfluous or imposed, unwanted, and fictitious work" by using "fear of economic loss," which encompasses picketing protected under the NLRA. The disjunctive construction impermissibly relieved the government from having to prove that the work was "fictitious" and thus could have allowed the jury to find a violation merely because the union sought to turn around nonunion jobs to maintain the prevailing wage through such a threatened picket, and the employer did not want to use the union workers to perform the work.

And here's the link to School House Rock's "Conjunction Junction" (because who isn't looking it up after reading about disjunctive construction winning an appeal?).

Moving Forward

The Court of Appeals was not willing to order a retrial on the facts, but rather issued reversals on specific counts. Only one charge was actually remanded to the district court. However, in a similar case pending against two Boston City Hall employees that withheld event permits unless union workers were hired, this case could prove pivotal.

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