First Circuit Limits Reach of Janus in Public Union Representation Case

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on October 08, 2019

Public-sector unions cannot force membership dues when representing a class of employees. That was the result of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2018 decision in Janus v. American Federation, which overruled 41 years of precedent.

Lower courts are now interpreting this decision, and mostly interpreting Janus narrowly. The U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals, on October 4, distinguished and limited the reach of Janus. The unanimous panel held that an economics professor at the University of Maine relied on an improper reading of both state law and Janus when claiming that, as a non-paying employee represented by a labor union with which he disagrees, his First Amendment rights were violated.

Maine Law Gives Public Unions an Exclusive Right to Represent

The Maine statute, modeled after the national Labor Relations Act, provides that universities will recognize a majority-elected labor union as the exclusive bargaining agent for the entire class. However, unlike in Janus, in this case no employee is required to become a member or pay dues.

The panel found this situation “plainly distinguishable” from Janus. What’s more, in 2016, the First Circuit held in D’Agostino v. Baker that a democratically elected union does not violate the First Amendment right of free association. The panel did not see Janus as affecting this precedent.

While the professor in this case argued that the union became his personal representative once selected and was therefore bound by the Supreme Court’s logic in Janus, the First Circuit found this argument unconvincing. The panel noted that in this case, employees had the right to bring grievances without approval from the union. The law prohibited discrimination against employees who choose not to join. The panel quoted directly from D’Agostino in writing that “. . . the freedom of the dissenting appellants to speak out publicly on any union position further counters the claim that there is an unacceptable risk the union speech will be attributed to them contrary to their own views . . .”

The panel therefore upheld the lower court’s dismissal on failure to state a claim.

More Challenges Coming?

Challenges to public-sector unions may continue, although so far they have met with limited success. Earlier in 2019, for example, a District Court judge in Alaska cited Minnesota State Board for Community Colleges v. Knight in finding that exclusive union representation does not violate First Amendment rights of non-members. So far, the Ninth, Eighth, and now First Circuits have all declined to extend Janus.

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