(EUGENE, Ore.) — Staci Trees isn’t the first Oregon public employee to file suit against her union over its refusal to grant her opt-out request. Nor is hers the first instance of the union clearly forging a signature on a membership form so it could continue to confiscate dues from a worker who no longer wanted to pay.
But Trees’ case is the first to invoke the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, alleging the union engaged in a pattern of fraudulent activity victimizing both her and other union members.
The lawsuit was filed on Monday, March 29th, in U.S. District Court in Eugene by the Freedom Foundation, a national nonprofit watchdog organization specializing in public-sector union abuses. It names Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 503, the Oregon Department of Administrative Services and its director, Katy Coba, as defendants.
Trees, employed by the Oregon Department of Transportation, was required to either sign a union membership card or pay an agency fee to SEIU 503 when she was originally hired in 2009. But in June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in Janus v. AFSCME that mandatory union membership, dues and fees in the public sector are a violation of the worker’s First Amendment rights.
Within a month, Trees contacted the union and requested her release.
After numerous delays, SEIU 503 finally canceled her membership in December 2020. But Trees was informed in an email that the union would continue deducting around $100 a month in dues until at least February 2021 because, under the terms of a new agreement she signed in 2016, all memberships would be renewed automatically unless the worker opted out during an annual two-week window.
Trees, however, couldn’t remember signing such an agreement and, when she demanded to see it, not only had her signature been forged, but important personal details had simply been made up.
“If Staci Trees was the only person this had ever happened to, you could conceivably blame it on inefficiency or incompetence,” said Freedom Foundation attorney Rebekah Millard. “But this isn’t an isolated case.”
The Freedom Foundation is currently litigating four other forgery cases involving SEIU 503 in Oregon and has taken action in more than a dozen total forgery cases involving public-sector unions on the west coast.
“This is a pattern of behavior,” Millard continued. “This is how government unions are responding to Janus — by intimidating employees, lying or suppressing the truth about their rights and fighting every single attempt to opt out.
“And when all else fails,” she said, “they simply forge their signature on a phony contract, locking employees into new terms they never agreed to.”
Millard said SEIU’s actions violate both state and federal RICO laws because the union issued numerous electronic communications that fraudulently claimed Trees authorized deductions she didn’t.
Moreover, the complaint cites four other current lawsuits in which the SEIU 503 engaged in similar behavior against other Oregon public employees.
“It’s time for the courts to recognize these are not isolated instances and take action to hold SEIU 503 accountable,” said Jason Dudash, the Freedom Foundation’s Oregon director. “And that’s just what this lawsuit is intended to do.”