Obama Judge Blocks Class Action Against Illinois SEIU

Home health aides seek to recover $32 million unconstitutionally siphoned to union

Caregiver explaining medications to older man in wheelchair / AP

A federal judge appointed by Barack Obama blocked Illinois home health aides from recovering dues money they say was illegally withdrawn from their checks by labor giant Service Employees International Union.

District Court Judge Manish Shah denied class action status to three home health aides attempting to recover agency fees that SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana (SEIU) deducted from their Medicaid reimbursements. The union received more than $32 million in dues from 80,000 personal assistants from 2008 to 2014, when the Supreme Court declared the collection scheme unconstitutional. Shah said that the plaintiff home health aides had not adequately proved that every one of their peers felt cheated by the union.

"To prove injury, and the complete constitutional tort, plaintiffs must prove contemporaneous subjective opposition to the compelled payments," Shah ruled in Riffey v. Rauner.

The case is a continuation of Harris v. Quinn, which brought an end to coercive unionism for home health aides in Illinois.

Imprisoned former governor Rod Blagojevich and his Democratic successor, Pat Quinn, each forced home health aides, including those caring for family members, to pay dues money or agency fees to SEIU in order to receive reimbursements from the state Medicaid program. The Supreme Court rejected the state’s argument that since the aides collected taxpayer dollars they should be considered public employees. Illinois and SEIU abandoned the practice following the court’s 5-4 decision.

The case has been updated to reflect new players. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner took office in 2015 and has not taken a position on the suit; plaintiff Pamela Harris did not suffer injury from the case, so co-defendant Theresa Riffey became the face of the case.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which led the Harris v. Quinn case, has remained on board to help plaintiffs who had fees deducted by the union. Foundation lawyer Bill Messenger said that since the union was found to have obtained the money by illegal means, it should be required to return the funds to workers.

"This was money that was supposed to go toward the care of persons with disabilities was funneled to a special interest group," he said in a phone interview with the Washington Free Beacon.

The SEIU argued in a brief that the $32 million sum sought by the home health aides threatened the union’s financial future because "total membership dues paid by all Union members in 2014 was about $7.3 million." Union attorneys also argued that any non-member personal assistant who did not object to agency fee deductions gave their tacit approval for the withdrawal.

The SEIU did not respond to a request for comment.

"Plaintiffs’ class certification motion is not supported by any evidence to show that the putative class members, who all received the benefits of union representation, had any objection at the time to paying their fair share for the costs of that representation," the brief said.

Messenger said that the class action suit was the best course of action given the breadth of plaintiffs and relatively small sum of money each individual would collect after a lengthy legal battle.

"It would be uneconomical to do the same case again and again when it averages out to around $400 per person. How many people want to file a full blown federal lawsuit for that?" he said.

The plaintiffs expect to appeal the district court’s ruling to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.