Third Circuit Affirms Privacy Verdict Against Labor Union

In Philadelphia, one of the most popular organizing tactics used by labor unions to recruit new members was found by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to be in violation of the law.  Nearly two thousand employee-partners of Cintas, a publicly held industrial uniform company, filed suit against an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, UNITE-HERE, claiming that the labor-organizing operation had used their motor-vehicle records to wrongfully obtain their personal information. (Pichler v. UNITE).

They filed suit under the Privacy Protection Act of 1994, which prohibits the disclosure and use of personal information obtained through motor-vehicle records.  After being hit by a verdict of $5 million, UNITE HERE appealed to the Third Circuit, which has federal appellate jurisdiction over Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.  

The Third Circuit’s response was imageunequivocal.  Not only did it uphold the multi-million dollar verdict but it also implied that the union may be on the hook for more in light of the fact that there could have been numerous privacy violations for each employee targeted.  The court also reversed the district court’s decision precluding an award of punitive damages.  Instead, the court remanded the punitive-damages issue to the lower court to be retried.

The suit alleged that UNITE HERE illegally obtained the personal information of Cintas employees in order to solicit their support during a union campaign.  The plaintiffs first learned of the information-theft when UNITE-HERE representatives started showing up at their homes uninvited.

This is the latest battle in a long war between UNITE HERE and Cintas. It’s the second multi-million dollar verdict against the organizer, as well.  A California jury awarded Cintas $17 million for defamation against Sutter Health and its affiliated hospitals during a union-organizing campaign in 2006.  Cintas is also one of three companies to have sued the organizers alleging RICO-based claims of civil conspiracy.

This is the second recent decision in favor of employers who stood firm against unlawful union-organizing tactics.   (See Clarification of “Permanent-Replacement Employees” During Economic Strike).

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