By David S. Wilson and Catherine M. Dacre
Seyfarth Synopsis: On January 6, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued its opinion in Baro v. Lake County Federation of Teachers. The three-judge panel unanimously held that the Plaintiff’s mistaken agreement to join a labor union was not a violation of her First Amendment rights, as she voluntarily assented to the terms of the contract.
Plaintiff Ramon Baro (“Plaintiff”) worked as an English-as-a-second-language teacher at the Waukegan Community School District in Northeastern Illinois. At the start of the 2019-20 school year, Baro attended a presentation by the Lake County Federation of Teachers Local 504 (“Defendant”). During this presentation, a union representative outlined how much dues would cost and gave each teacher a union membership application. Although the union representative did not claim that membership was mandatory, Plaintiff assumed that it was, and signed it accordingly.
In relevant part, the document read “[t]his voluntary authorization shall be irrevocable,” and that it was “signed freely and voluntarily and not out of any fear of reprisal.”
A few days after signing the application, Plaintiff realized that union membership was only optional. She then sent letters to the District and the union in an attempt to revoke her membership and recoup her dues. When the representative informed Baro that she would have to wait until the following year to resign, Baro filed a section 1983 civil rights suit, alleging a violation of her First Amendment rights.
The Court’s Decision
Plaintiff claimed that the District’s withholding of union dues from her paycheck amounted to a violation of the First Amendment. In doing so, she relied on the reasoning set forth by the Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME.
In Janus, the Court considered the constitutionality of “fee-agency” schemes for public sector employees. Under these arrangements, employees who opted out of union membership were not assessed full union dues, but were still required to pay a smaller fee. This meant that government employees were forced to subsidize the union in some way. The Court held that union subsidization schemes like this violate the First Amendment because they compel speech in the form of monetary support.
Specifically, Plaintiff based her claims on a particular paragraph in Janus, which states that “[b]y agreeing to pay, nonmembers are waiving their First Amendment rights, and such a waiver cannot be presumed. Rather, to be effective, the waiver must be freely given and shown by ‘clear and compelling’ evidence.” Baro took this passage to mean that once a nonmember signs a union contract, a “secondary waiver analysis” takes places and requires the court to look outside the four corners of the agreement for further evidence that the nonmember consented to join.
The panel rejected this argument for several reasons. First, it found that Janus’s reasoning “was limited to nonmembers who were being forced to subsidize union speech with which they had chosen not to associate.” As such, it does not apply when a union member freely joins a union and authorizes the deduction of union dues. Put simply, “[t]he voluntary signing of a union membership contract is clear and compelling evidence that an employee has waived her right.” Because Baro voluntarily signed a valid contract, her reliance on Janus was misplaced.
The court also held that under ordinary contract principles, Plaintiff’s voluntariness argument was untenable. Illinois follows the objective theory of intent, whereby a court looks first to the terms of the written agreement—not personal conceptions—to determine what the contract means. Since the membership application clearly said that it was a “voluntary authorization” and “signed freely,” the court refused to consider Baro’s subjective understanding of the contract. Further, the judges were not moved by Plaintiff’s argument that dismissing her claim would spur fraud and coercion, as these are common defenses which can ordinarily and independently void contracts.
The court pulled no punches in its conclusion, and unequivocally stated that “the First Amendment protects our right to speak. It does not create an independent right to void legal obligations when we are unhappy with what we have said.”
Implication for Employers The Seventh Circuit’s decision in Baro affirmed the fact that generally applicable laws don’t offend the First Amendment just because their enforcement has incidental effects on speech. While the case may seem like a win for organized labor, it is more accurately a win for contract law. Nonetheless, employers should be mindful that employee misunderstandings about union membership will not usually be enough to void a contract. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to a Seyfarth attorney