Adriana Ramon Baro v. Lake County Federation of Teachers Local 504, 57 F.4th 582 (7th Cir. 2023)

Withholding Union Dues From Union Member Paycheck is Not a Violation of First Amendment Rights

General Interest to School Officials
Case: Adriana Ramon Baro v. Lake County Federation of Teachers Local 504, 57 F.4th 582 (7th Cir. 2023)
Date: Friday, January 6, 2023

On January 6, 2023, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (Court) issued its decision in Adriana Ramon Baro v. Lake County Federation of Teachers Local 504 (Ramon Baro), holding that withholding of union dues to which a union member has voluntarily consented is not a violation of First Amendment rights.

Petitioner signed a contract for union membership at orientation to her teaching position. Several days later when she learned that union membership was not mandatory, she sent letters to the school district (District) and the union, trying to revoke her membership. The union informed her she would need to wait until the following August – the published membership revocation time – to revoke her membership. Union dues were withdrawn from her paychecks. Petitioner filed this lawsuit. The union then sent Petitioner a letter confirming that she was no longer a union member and reimbursing all paid dues plus legal fees with a check. The District halted withdrawing her dues the same day. Petitioner returned the check and continued pursuing legal action. The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Petitioner appealed.

The Court’s decision builds on the 2018 Mark Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, et al., 535 (Janus), case in which the United States Supreme Court found that “fair share fees” paid by nonunion members to unions are unconstitutional.

The Court found that Janus does not apply to union members who voluntarily signed union membership contracts. “…[Petitioner] voluntarily signed a valid contract, became a union member, and accepted the terms and conditions of union membership. Accordingly… Janus – a case about the First Amendment rights of employees who choose not to join unions – does not apply to [Petitioner].” 

Additionally, the Court found that ordinary contract principles apply when interpreting union membership contracts. “Illinois follows the objective theory of intent, whereby the court looks first to the written agreement and not to the parties’ subjective understandings.” The Court found that the objective intent of the parties was clear from the face of the membership agreement. Petitioner’s belief that the contract was mandatory is irrelevant.

The Court concluded by stating that “[T]he First Amendment protects our right to speak. It does not create an independent right to void obligations when we are unhappy with what we have said.”

Mary H. Bandstra, IASB Law Clerk