The U.S. Supreme Court has refused, without comment, to review a federal judgment against John Vellardita, now executive director of the Clark County teachers union, and other leaders of his former union in Oakland, Calif., which means they will have to pay $1.5 million in damages to the parent organization of United Healthcare Workers-West.
“It was a real long shot,” said Dan Siegel, attorney for Vellardita and the defendants. The Supreme Court receives 10,000 appeals a year and only takes about 80 cases. “I thought we should try it.”
The Supreme Court’s denial in the 2010 case means Vellardita and the 16 other defendants who once led United Healthcare Workers-West will have to pay damages to its former parent organization, Service Employees International Union, for using union resources to undermine it and create a rival union, National Union of Healthcare Workers.
Among the defendants in the civil case, Vellardita, former head of the long-term care division for the union, must pay the largest chunk – $77,850. That’s more than the $70,600 paid out by then United Healthcare Workers-West president Sal Rosselli. A jury also ruled the rival union they created must pay $724,000 in damages.
Vellardita was portrayed in the court case as the mastermind of the union’s inner circle, which dubbed themselves the Shakers and Makers and held secret meetings in San Francisco’s Chinatown to orchestrate the unraveling of their own union. Vellardita ordered documents be shredded and members’ contact information be jumbled in the union local’s computer servers. The correct information was placed in off-site databases so that SEIU couldn’t get it when they came to take over the local union it suspected of being mismanaged, according to evidence in the federal civil lawsuit.
Neither Vellardita nor the SEIU returned the Review-Journal’s calls for comment last week to discuss the Supreme Court’s Nov. 4 dismissal.
The plan to weaken the union began after word had trickled down that SEIU was going to take the local union into trusteeship, in part because of financial improprieties. Local leadership likely would have been removed.
In reaction, Vellardita and the union’s inner circle went “rogue,” plunging their own union into disarray while starting a rival union, according to the March 26 opinion of federal Judge Richard Tallman, denying a change of judgment in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
They had “one mission: to discard the charred remains of a weakened UHW while simultaneously starting a competing local union of their own,” Tallman wrote.
But that’s not how Vellardita’s lawyer, Siegel, sees it.
He argued that Vellardita and the others were acting in the interest of their 65,000 members who didn’t want to be taken over by the international parent union, which planned to appoint someone with a questionable record.
Any questionable leadership of SEIU is “irrelevant,” Tallman upheld in the appeal. Regardless of whether SEIU is a “model international union,” federal labor law requires union funds to be used for the benefit of the union.
Vellardita and his group argued that their duty is to “only the rank-and-file members of their local union,” Tallman wrote. “They maintain they have done no wrong.”
And they maintain that stance after the Supreme Court denial, Siegel said. But the appeals have been exhausted.
“We’ll have to live with it,” said Siegel, adding that payments haven’t yet been given to SEIU by Vellardita or the other defendants. “I’m sure SEIU will come calling soon.”
He noted that a negative precedent may have been set here.
Local union leaders will be “frightened” to do what members ask if it’s something that runs counter to the parent union, Siegel said. If local leaders obey their members, the parent union could sue. If they ignore their members, those members may remove them from office, he said.
Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279.