Cook County Record

Friday, December 6, 2019

Chicago wrong place for union lawyer's libel suit over right-to-work group's Indiana high court article

By Jonathan Bilyk | Oct 20, 2016

General court 03

A Chicago federal judge has tossed a union lawyer’s defamation lawsuit against a leading anti-union advocacy organization, saying the facts of the case – which centers on the veracity of the lawyer’s statements to the Indiana Supreme Court during a court fight over the constitutionality of Indiana’s Right to Work law  - indicate the defamation suit should not have been filed in Illinois.

On Oct. 17, U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo, who serves as chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, dismissed the lawsuit brought about 13 months earlier by Dale Pierson against the Springfield, Va.-based National Institute for Labor Relations Research.

“Other than maintaining a publicly accessible website, holding two meetings in Chicago over the past 30 years, and occasionally receiving emails and scholarship applications from Illinois residents, Defendants (the NILRR) have no meaningful and continuing connections to Illinois,” Castillo wrote in his decision. “In addition, Defendants could not reasonably have expected that posting an article on their website relating to an Indiana lawsuit would subject them to a lawsuit in Illinois.”

Castillo granted dismissal without prejudice, saying he would allow Pierson to refile his lawsuit in a more appropriate court, if he wished. Castillo did not state which jurisdiction would be the appropriate destination for the complaint, should Pierson desire to try to press his claims again.

The case landed in federal court in December 2015, after the NILRR removed it from Cook County Circuit Court, where Pierson had originally filed his lawsuit three months earlier.

In the complaint, Pierson had alleged the NILRR had wrongly smeared his reputation by asserting in an article published on the organization’s website that Pierson “flat-out lied” while representing a group of labor unions before the Indiana Supreme Court in 2014.

Pierson, who served as general counsel for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, based in suburban Countryside, focused his single count of defamation on that September 2014 article, which appeared days after Pierson had argued the unions’ case before the Indiana high court.

The Indiana Supreme Court had agreed to hear arguments in the case after a Lake County, Ind., judge had ruled the state’s 2012 Right to Work law unconstitutional. Judge George Paras had ruled the law, which would make it illegal to force employees working in a union shop to pay fees to unions purportedly negotiating on their behalf, would force unions to represent the workers for free. That, he said, violated a clause in the Indiana Constitution barring the state from forcing anyone to provide services for free.

The Indiana Supreme Court vacated that ruling in November 2014 and upheld the law.

During arguments, however, Pierson had purported said “federal law requires unions to represent fairly all employees in any given bargaining unit regardless of their membership in the union.” So, he argued, it is “not a legal possibility” that unions could negotiate solely on behalf of their members in a right to work shop. Thus, he said, by requiring unions to represent even non-dues-paying workers in the shop when negotiating with employers, the Indiana law unfairly burdens the unions.

Reporting on the arguments, the NILRR published its article, headlined “Operating Engineers Union Lawyer Flat-Out Lies to Indiana Supreme Court.” To support its claim, the NILRR article cited a petition presented by the United Steel Workers union to the National Labor Relations Board – which the NLRB rejected – which argued unions have the right to represent workers in shops in which no union has been granted exclusive bargaining rights.

Pierson said the NILRR article mischaracterized the unions’ position on the question and omitted key information to set the filing in its proper context.

The failure to include such important information, coupled with the assertion Pierson had “lied,” stated as fact, and not opinion, made the article defamatory and damaging to Pierson’s reputation, Pierson argued in his lawsuit.

He had sought a combined total of at least $550,000 in actual and punitive damages for the alleged defamation.

The NILRR moved to dismiss the lawsuit, however, arguing neither Cook County courts nor Chicago federal courts were the proper place for such an action.

Pierson responded by arguing the article was targeted at him “in Illinois,” meaning the case should be tried in Illinois.

Castillo, however, disagreed.

“The article concerned an Indiana law, referenced ‘Hoosier employees,’ and reported on events that occurred before the Indiana Supreme Court,” Castillo wrote. “The only connection between Defendants’ allegedly tortious post and the forum state is that Plaintiff happens to live in Illinois.”

The NILRR was represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Nielson, Zehe & Antas, of Chicago.

Pierson represented himself.

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Organizations in this Story

International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150National Institute for Labor Relations ResearchNielsen Zehe & Antas