SALEM — An Oregon state employee and a labor union have reached a settlement over her lawsuit seeking payback of obligatory union fees, marking the first refund of forced fees since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in late June that government workers can’t be required to contribute to labor groups, the employee’s lawyers said Monday.
Debora Nearman, an employee of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in her lawsuit filed in April in federal court that the state’s practice of forcing her to pay fees to fund union activity violated her First Amendment freedoms.
She said the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, opposes her political and religious views and even led a campaign against her husband when he ran as a Republican candidate for the state Legislature.
Nearman is a member of a statewide bargaining unit represented by SEIU but doesn’t belong to the union.
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which was involved in both the Supreme Court case and Nearman’s, is handling some 200 other cases across the country, including a class-action lawsuit in California by 30,000 state employees, said Patrick Semmens, the group’s vice president.
If the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules in favor of the plaintiffs in the California case, they stand to be refunded more than $100 million, Semmens estimated.
Melissa Unger, executive director of SEIU Local 503 in Oregon, said the union chose to settle Nearman’s lawsuit rather than go through a costly and time-consuming legal battle.
“The settlement we entered into last week was about being the best stewards of our members’ dues money as possible, period,” Unger said in a statement.
The Oregon branch of the nationwide SEIU claims 72,000 members who work in state, local government, nonprofit agencies and higher education. Its spokeswoman, Jill Bakken, said the Supreme Court’s ruling that eliminated obligatory fees has led to a drop in membership “well within our expectations.”
“While we’re not sure what the long-term impacts will be yet — the case is still relatively new — we’re very encouraged,” Bakken said.
Nearman, whose husband, Mike Nearman, is a member of the Oregon House of Representatives, will be refunded the almost $3,000 she paid over two years.
A statute of limitations prevented her from recovering earlier payments, Semmens said.
The Supreme Court ruling on June 27 involved Illinois state government worker Mark Janus, who argued that everything unions do, including bargaining with the state, is political and employees should not be forced to pay for it.
“The Janus case said it violates public employees’ First Amendment rights to be forced to fund a labor union,” Semmens said. “This (Oregon) case takes the precedent and follows it to its logical conclusion.”
The fact that SEIU spent $53,260 to oppose Mike Nearman’s candidacy by campaigning against him and distributing fliers that disparaged him “is a vivid example of why people frequently don’t want to fund a labor union,” Semmens said.
Besides SEIU Local 503, also named as defendants in Nearman’s lawsuit were the heads of the state Fish and Wildlife Department and the Department Of Administrative Services.
Spokesmen of those agencies didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
In its 5-4 ruling in the Janus case, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority scrapped a 41-year-old decision that had allowed states to require public employees to pay some fees to unions that represent them, even if the workers choose not to join.
The decision freed non-union members in nearly two dozen states from any financial ties to unions. It could also encourage members to stop paying dues for services the court said they can get for free.
The unions say the outcome could affect more than 5 million government workers in about two dozen states and the District of Columbia.