A group of Maryland state employees has filed a federal lawsuit against their labor union to recoup union fees the U.S. Supreme Court found to be illegal in a ruling last year.

In a class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday in Baltimore against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the 19 state employees are seeking a refund of fees they say they were forced to pay before the Supreme Court’s decision.

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The Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 in Janus v. AFSCME that public employees cannot be forced to pay union fees, a decision that labor union leaders in Maryland have called an attack on worker rights. The federal justices had overturned a 41-year-old precedent, ruling that the 1st Amendment protects teachers, police officers and other public employees from being required to support a private group whose views may differ from their own.

The lawsuit against AFSCME Council 3 seeks to recoup up to $7 million in “agency” or “fair share” fees charged to the plaintiffs and nearly 10,000 other state employees

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore by attorneys from the Liberty Justice Center and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which also represented the plaintiffs in the Janus case.

“For years, thousands of employees for the state of Maryland faced an unconstitutional situation: Pay the union or lose your job," said Patrick Hughes, president and co-founder of the Liberty Justice Center, in an announcement Wednesday. "Now it’s time for AFSCME to rectify the situation by returning to workers the money they should never have taken in the first place.”

Under the Maryland statute of limitations, the workers are seeking a refund of non-member fees paid to AFSCME between Sept. 4, 2016, and June 27, 2018. In Maryland, AFSCME represents more than 30,000 workers at state agencies and at colleges and universities.

AFSCME did not offer a comment on the lawsuit Wednesday.

The attorneys said the state employees in the lawsuit paid an average of $400 a year in fees to the union in order to work in their positions.

Gary Mattos, lead plaintiff in the case, said he never was a member of AFSCME but has paid the union more than $2,000 since 2011.

“Taking money from hardworking people without their permission is wrong, and I was relieved that the Supreme Court agrees,” said Mattos, a correctional dietary officer with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services for 20 years, in an announcement of the lawsuit. "I want my money back and so do many other state employees.”

The Supreme Court decision struck down laws in Maryland, California, New York and 19 other mostly Democratic-leaning states that authorized unions to negotiate contracts that require all employees to pay a so-called fair share fee to cover the cost of collective bargaining.

Most of the plaintiffs in the Maryland lawsuit work for the state public safety and correctional agency, with others employees or former employees of the state’s Drinking and Driving Probation Program, the state Department of Human Resources, the Baltimore County Department of Social Services, the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, the State Highway Administration, the Cecil County Health Department and the state Department of Natural Resources.

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