AFSCME Local in California Forges Worker’s Signature, Wins Court Dismissal

It is now settled law that public employees cannot be forced to pay dues to a union as a condition of employment. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3930 and the State of California don’t seem convinced. Neither does a federal judge. On June 15, a U.S. District Court for the Central District of California rebuked an Orange County home care provider, Maria Quezambra, in her quest to recoup dues collected by the union via the State of California over six years despite clear evidence that someone at the union had forged her signature to establish membership. A week later, she filed an appeal. The larger issue, in light of the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, is the corrupt practice of government agencies allying themselves with the very unions with whom they bargain.     

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision was a landmark event in the annals of public-sector labor relations. By a 5-4 vote, the Court on June 27, 2018 had concluded that Mark Janus, a civil servant with the State of Illinois, could not be compelled to pay partial dues (“agency fees”) to an AFSCME affiliate to which he did not belong. On free speech grounds, the Court said, if a union seeks to deduct dues from an employee paycheck, it first must secure that employee’s “affirmative consent.” The union, in other words, cannot assume that consent already exists. The decision was the culmination of the Court’s gradual expansion of liberty for dissenting workers in the decades since its ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) authorizing the deductions. While many states are reconfiguring their labor laws to comply with Janus, others – like California – not only are refusing to comply, but are enlarging their role as official dues collectors for unions.   

Maria Quezambra’s case seemed airtight. First, the Supreme Court in 2014 had ruled favorably on behalf of nonpaying Illinois home care providers in Harris v. Quinn. Nonunion private-sector health care workers, the Court concluded in that class-action suit, could not be forced to furnish dues to the Service Employees International Union or AFSCME simply because some or all of their wages came out of a state Medicaid fund. This ruling led a direct path to the Janus decision four years later. Second, as Union Corruption Update recently explained with respect to Mark Janus’ updated lawsuit (which as of this writing is seeking certiorari), there is ample precedent for not limiting retroactivity. A 1993 Supreme Court decision, Harper v. Virginia Department of Taxation, concluded that a federal rule, once issued, “must be given full retroactive effect by all courts adjudicating federal law.” Third, a union representative unquestionably had forged Quezambra’s signature in hopes of deducting dues. This alone should be grounds for a full reimbursement.    

Back in 2012, Maria Quezambra, a Costa Mesa (Orange County), Calif. single mom, decided to become a caregiver for her adopted disabled daughter. Her compensation would come from a state Medicaid-funded program, In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS). Unknown to her, she would be represented by the United Domestic Workers of America (UDWA), also known as AFSCME Local 3930. At no time did she consent either to join the union or pay agency fees in lieu of joining. Starting in 2013, she noticed that a portion of her paycheck was being routed to UDWA. Working on the assumption that the deductions were mandated by California law, she did not challenge them. Yet in fact these deductions were the result of a sweetheart deal between union and IHSS officials. Ms. Quezambra found out the truth about a year and a half ago.

Incensed that she had been paying around $700 a year to a union which she did not support, Quezambra sent a certified letter to UDWA in February 2019 requesting the right to opt out of further dues contributions. She also insisted on seeing the document she supposedly signed that authorized the deductions. The following month UDWA conceded in a reply that she never agreed to join. In its own words, the union noted, “We have reviewed your file and determined that you did not properly authorize the dues deductions.” In effect, AFSCME Local 3930 was admitting to forgery. The union agreed to cease its dues assessments and offered her refunds retroactive to 2015, “consistent with the three-year statute of limitation applicable to claims for dues refunds.” Quezambra, on a limited household budget, however, sought repayment going back to 2013. Toward that end, she enlisted legal help from the Olympia, Wash.-based Freedom Foundation.

U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton, an Obama appointee, saw things differently. She dismissed Ms. Quezambra’s case, employing some Catch-22 logic in the process. The union didn’t have to repay Maria Quezambra, Judge Staton reasoned, because it was the State of California, not the union, that had deducted dues money under the IHSS program. Since the union didn’t receive dues directly from Ms. Quezambra, the state thus was not responsible for any forged union signature. This conclusion, based on the premise that the union’s relationship with the State of California did not render it a “state actor,” was willfully blind to context. The state’s deduction of Ms. Quezambra’s dues was pursuant to a contract (“memorandum of understanding”) with United Domestic Workers of America. This was a mutual alliance. Never mind that the arrangement should have been declared unenforceable in the wake of Harris v. Quinn. The reality is that union had enlisted the State to do the dirty work of dues collection. If that did not make UDWA a “state actor,” what exactly would it have taken? That Maria Quezambra’s union “membership” was the result of a forgery alone should have invalidated any union claim on her take-home pay.

The idea of a state government deducting fair share fees from unwilling payers on behalf of a union with which it negotiates may be legal, but it reeks of political back-scratching. And intentionally or not, the new U.S. district court ruling gives public-sector unions even wider carte blanche to misrepresent their intentions. The State of California, rather than establish safeguards against fraud, chose to take the word of AFSCME Local 3930. It isn’t as if union signature forgeries aren’t common. The Freedom Foundation alone recently filed more than a dozen forgery lawsuits – five in one single day, in fact – on behalf of dues-paying employees who had never joined the union charging them. To the extent these cases involve state-union partnerships, large sums might remain unrecovered if Judge Staton’s reasoning prevails.  

The Freedom Foundation plans to represent Maria Quezambra in her pending appeal; records show that on June 22 she paid a $505 Notice of Appeal fee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. But the issue goes deeper than a couple extra years of reimbursements for one person. “The (Supreme Court’s) intention in both Harris and Janus was to recognize the right of government employees to decide for themselves whether to associate with and support a labor union,” said Bob Wickers, the foundation’s California director. “Under this ruling, the union gets to decide that question by committing a crime. That may make perfect sense to an activist judge in California, but it won’t fly with the Supreme Court when it gets that far.”