By Ted Sickinger

An employee at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has won the first refund of mandatory union fees stemming from last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that public employees cannot be required to pay unions dues or fees if they opt out of membership.

Debora Nearman filed a lawsuit in April challenging the mandatory union costs as a condition of her employment at the agency. After the Janus decision was issued June 27, the Service Employees International Union 503 moved to settle the case and return more than two years of fees to Nearman, or $2,959.81.

Nearman, the wife of Oregon Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, had claimed that SEIU actively opposed her husband's election efforts, forming a political action committee and spending some $53,000 to campaign against him, including distributing disparaging fliers.

Nearman also said she is a devout Catholic and strongly opposes SEIU's position on abortion and its financial support of pro-choice political candidates and legislation. Finally, she said, SEIU takes policy positions that conflict with her political beliefs, including its support of a ballot measure that sought to impose a gross receipts tax on corporations. The SEIU spent millions lobbying in support of Measure 97, which was ultimately defeated.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision ended a provision in Oregon and 21 other states that required public employees to pay what's known as "fair share" fees as a condition of their employment, even if they opted out of union membership. The fees are supposed to cover bargaining and contract administration, including handling grievances.

The plaintiff was Illinois public employee Mark Janus, who sued his union in 2015. He argued the union's non-member fees still supported its political activities in violation of his First Amendment rights. Janus filed his case with legal aid from the Illinois-based Liberty Justice Center and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the latter group said.

The impact of the decision has been hotly debated. Some maintain that it is likely to result in a significant loss of union membership and the fees that are used to bankroll candidates and union lobbying at the Capitol. Oregon still ranks among the top states in the nation for public employee membership.

"Nearman's refund represents the first of what should ultimately be hundreds of millions of dollars or even more returned to public employees for union fees seized from them in violation of the First Amendment," Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Foundation, said in a news release.

Union advocates are more sanguine, saying public employees recognize the benefits of union membership and will continue to support them.

The SEIU did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(c)2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)