Baro v. Lake County Federation of Teachers Local 504, IFT-AFT, No. 22-1722 (7th Cir. 2023)

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary

Baro was an ESL teacher for Waukegan Community School District in 2019 when she signed a union membership form—a contract to join the union that represents teachers in the District. The form authorized the District to deduct union dues from her paychecks for one year. Baro alleged she learned later that she was not required to join the union. She tried to back out of the agreement. The union insisted that her contract was valid. The District continued deducting dues from her paychecks.

Baro filed suit, arguing that the dues deduction violated her First Amendment rights under the Supreme Court’s 2019 “Janus: decision. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. Baro voluntarily consented to the withdrawal of union dues. The enforcement of a valid private contract does not implicate her First Amendment rights. The “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.”

Download PDF
In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit ____________________ No. 22-1722 ARIADNA RAMON BARO, Plainti -Appellant, v. LAKE COUNTY FEDERATION OF TEACHERS LOCAL 504, IFT-AFT/AFL-CIO and WAUKEGAN COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 60, Defendants-Appellees. ____________________ Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 1:20-cv-02126 — John F. Kness, Judge. ____________________ ARGUED DECEMBER 6, 2022 — DECIDED JANUARY 6, 2023 ____________________ Before ROVNER, HAMILTON, and ST. EVE, Circuit Judges. ST. EVE, Circuit Judge. Ariadna Ramon Baro was an English-as-a-second-language teacher for Defendant Waukegan Community School District No. 60 (“the District”) in August 2019 when she signed a union membership form—a contract 2 No. 22-1722 to join Defendant Lake County Federation of Teachers Local 504, IFT-AFT/AFL-CIO (“the Union”), the union that represents teachers in the District. This form authorized the District to deduct union dues from her paychecks for one year. Ramon Baro alleges she learned later that she was not required to join the Union and she tried to back out of the agreement. But the Union insisted that her contract was valid and the District continued deducting dues from her paychecks. In response, Ramon Baro led this lawsuit, arguing that the dues deduction violated her First Amendment rights under Janus v. American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees, Council 31, 138 S. Ct. 2448 (2018). The district court dismissed the suit. Because Ramon Baro voluntarily consented to the withdrawal of union dues and the enforcement of a valid private contract does not implicate her First Amendment rights, we now af rm. I. Background A. Factual Allegations 1 Ramon Baro worked as an English-as-a-second-language teacher in the District during the 2019–2020 school year. As part of orientation, she attended a presentation by the Union. A representative explained how much dues would be and gave each teacher a Union Membership Application. Although the Union’s representative did not claim that membership was required—and no one from the district made any representations about union membership—Ramon Baro 1 Because the district court dismissed this complaint at the pleading stage, the following allegations are taken from Ramon Baro’s complaint and assumed true. Proft v. Raoul, 944 F.3d 686, 690 (7th Cir. 2019). No. 22-1722 3 assumed it was mandatory and signed the application. It read, in relevant part: I hereby apply to be a member of the Lake County Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 504 and authorize the Lake County Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 504 to act as my exclusive representation with my employer[.] … I authorize you to deduct from my earnings on a regular pro rata basis, and time frame as set forth in my collective bargaining agreement, the following: 1. An amount equal to the current annual membership dues … . This voluntary authorization and assignment shall be irrevocable, regardless of whether I am or remain a member of the Union, for a period of one year from the date of authorization and shall automatically renew from year to year unless I revoke this authorization by completing a revocation form between August 1 and August 31. 2. … This authorization is signed freely and voluntarily and not out of any fear of reprisal; I will not be favored or disadvantaged because I exercise this right. This authorization shall continue in e ect from year to year unless terminated by me by written noti cation … . A few days after she signed the contract, Ramon Baro learned that union membership was, in fact, optional. She sent letters to the District and the Union, trying to revoke her membership. 4 No. 22-1722 Nevertheless, the District began deducting dues from Ramon Baro’s paychecks in January 2020. The following month, Ramon Baro contacted her union representative and reiterated that she wanted to revoke her membership in the Union and stop paying dues. In response, the President of the Union informed her that she would have to wait until August to resign, per the membership agreement. Ramon Baro then led this lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the continued deduction of dues violated her First Amendment rights under Janus, 138 S. Ct. at 2486, and seeking a refund for the dues she had paid. The President of the Union sent her a letter just a few days later, con rming that she was no longer a member of the Union and that dues would stop being withheld from her paycheck. He enclosed a check for $829.30, which he said included “a full refund of all [Ramon Baro’s] dues plus an additional ve hundred dollars for [her] e orts in pursuing this matter.” The District stopped withholding her dues the same day. But two days later, Ramon Baro returned the check and moved forward with this lawsuit. B. Procedural History At the district court, the District and the Union moved to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). The court granted the motion, explaining that Ramon Baro’s “voluntary choice to join her school’s local union—even if ill-informed—means that [she] is bound by the terms of the union membership agreement and thus cannot show that the deduction of dues from her paycheck violated the First Amendment.” She timely led this appeal. No. 22-1722 5 II. Analysis “We review a dismissal order under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) de novo.” Proft, 944 F.3d at 690. We nd, as the district court held, that neither the First Amendment nor ordinary contract principles entitle Ramon Baro to relief. A. Janus Does Not Apply to Union Members Ramon Baro insists that when the District withheld union dues from her paychecks, it violated her First Amendment rights under Janus. In Janus, the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of statutory “agency-fee” schemes for public sector unions. Under these agency-fee arrangements, “[e]mployees who decline[d] to join the union [we]re not assessed full union dues but [were required] instead [to] pay what [wa]s generally called an ‘agency fee,’ which amount[ed] to a percentage of the union dues.” Janus, 138 S. Ct. at 2460. This left government employees with no option but to subsidize a union in some way. Compelled union subsidization, the Court held, violated nonmembers’ First Amendment rights. Id. at 2486. Ramon Baro’s claim that she has a right to rescind her union membership is based on a single paragraph in Janus: Neither an agency fee nor any other payment to the union may be deducted from a nonmember’s wages, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee a rmatively consents to pay. By agreeing to pay, nonmembers are waiving their First Amendment rights, and such a waiver cannot be presumed. Rather, to be e ective, the waiver must be freely given and shown by ‘clear and compelling’ evidence. 6 No. 22-1722 Id. (cleaned up). She reads this passage as creating a right for any government employee who, like her, “agree[s] to pay” a union. Because “waiver cannot be presumed,” Ramon Baro contends that once a nonmember signs a membership agreement and agrees to pay union dues, a secondary waiver analysis is triggered, requiring a court to look beyond the membership agreement for further “clear and compelling evidence” that the employee consented to pay the union. We rejected this reading of Janus in Bennett v. Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, 991 F.3d 724, 731 (7th Cir. 2021). The plainti in Bennett was a union employee who had signed her union membership contract before Janus was decided and believed the holding in Janus permitted her to void the contract. We ruled that Janus’s reasoning was limited to nonmembers who were being forced to subsidize union speech with which they had chosen not to associate. Id. (citing Belgau v. Inslee, 975 F.3d 940, 950 (9th Cir. 2020), cert. denied, 141 S. Ct. 2795 (2021) and Fischer v. Governor of New Jersey, 842 F. App'x 741, 752 (3d Cir. 2021), cert. denied sub nom. Fischer v. Murphy, 142 S. Ct. 426 (2021)). By contrast, “Janus said nothing about union members who, like Bennett, freely chose to join a union and voluntarily authorized the deduction of union dues, and who thus consented to subsidizing a union.” Id. at 732. All circuits to consider the issue have agreed that Janus creates no new waiver requirement before a valid union contract can be enforced. See Oliver v. Serv. Emps. Int'l Union Loc. 668, 830 F. App'x 76, 79 (3d Cir. 2020); Hendrickson v. AFSCME Council 18, 992 F.3d 950, 962 (10th Cir. 2021), cert. denied, 142 S. Ct. 423 (2021); Belgau, 975 F.3d at 951; Fischer, 842 F. App’x at 753. The voluntary signing of a union membership contract is clear and No. 22-1722 7 compelling evidence that an employee has waived her right not to join a union. Attempting to distinguish her case from Bennett, Ramon Baro points to the timing of her union membership. It is true that Bennett joined her union before Janus was decided while Ramon Baro joined the Union after Janus was decided. But the timing makes no di erence. What matters is the nature of each person’s decision to sign a private contract. Like Bennett, Ramon Baro voluntarily signed a valid contract, became a union member, and accepted the terms and conditions of union membership. Accordingly, our holding in Bennett controls and Janus—a case about the First Amendment rights of employees who choose not to join unions—does not apply to Ramon Baro. Her § 1983 claim fails on these grounds alone. B. Ordinary Contract Principles Ramon Baro nevertheless argues that Bennett should not control because she did not know that joining the Union was optional, and so her decision to do so, unlike Bennett’s, was not voluntary. But Ramon Baro’s union membership is established by contract, and the First Amendment does not immunize agreements from ordinary contract law principles. See Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., 501 U.S. 663, 669 (1991) (“[G]enerally applicable laws do not o end the First Amendment simply because their enforcement … has incidental e ects” on free speech); Bennett, 991 F.3d at 731 (citing Belgau, 975 F.3d at 950). Indeed, every circuit court to consider the issue has held the same. See Belgau, 975 F.3d at 951; Fischer, 842 F. App’x at 753; Hendrickson, 992 F.3d at 962; see also Hoekman v. Educ. Minn., 41 F.4th 969, 978 (8th Cir. 2022). 8 No. 22-1722 Applying ordinary Illinois contract principles, we see that Ramon Baro’s voluntariness argument is untenable: Illinois follows the objective theory of intent, whereby the court looks rst to the written agreement and not to the parties’ subjective understandings. … The status of a document as a contract depends on what the parties express to each other and to the world, not on what they keep to themselves. Hampton v. Ford Motor Co., 561 F.3d 709, 714 (7th Cir. 2009) (cleaned up); see also Lewitton v. ITA Software, Inc., 585 F.3d 377, 380 (7th Cir. 2009) (“Only if the ‘contract’s language is susceptible to more than one interpretation’ would we look to extrinsic evidence to determine the parties’ intent.”) (quoting Camico Mut. Ins. Co. v. Citizens Bank, 474 F.3d 989, 993 (7th Cir. 2007)). In this case, the objective intent of the parties was clear from the face of the membership agreement. By the plain language of the contract, the agreement was a “voluntary authorization and assignment,” intended to “be irrevocable, regardless of whether [Ramon Baro is] or remain[s] a member of the Union, for a period of one year.” Ramon Baro’s signature on the contract further attested that it was “signed freely and voluntarily.” Under Illinois contract law, such unambiguous language means that our analysis does not consider the subjective understanding of the parties. In other words, Ramon Baro’s belief that the contract was mandatory is irrelevant. See Hendrickson, 992 F.3d at 962 (applying New Mexico contract law); Fischer, 842 F. App’x at 752–53 (applying New Jersey contract law). 2 2 These same contract principles explain why Ramon Baro’s suggestion that dismissing her claim would sanction coercion and fraud by unions is No. 22-1722 9 In sum, the 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. For the foregoing reasons, the decision of the district court is AFFIRMED. unfounded. Fraud and coercion are common defenses which can void contracts in the rst place. See, e.g., Keystone Montessori Sch. v. Vill. of River Forest, 187 N.E.3d 1167, 1178 (Ill. App. Ct. 2021), reh'g denied, (July 20, 2021), appeal denied, 183 N.E.3d 909 (Ill. 2021).
Primary Holding

Seventh Circuit rejects a teacher's suit to stop the deduction of union dues from her paycheck. Her consent to the withdrawal of dues was a private contract that did not implicate the First Amendment.

Disclaimer: Justia Annotations is a forum for attorneys to summarize, comment on, and analyze case law published on our site. Justia makes no guarantees or warranties that the annotations are accurate or reflect the current state of law, and no annotation is intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Contacting Justia or any attorney through this site, via web form, email, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.