SAN FRNCISCO — A federal jury on Friday sided with the Service Employees Union and its California local United Healthcare Workers-West when it returned a verdict assessing $1.6 million in damages against several former local leaders and the rival union they formed.
But the rival union is claiming victory too, saying it has resisted the SEIU’s efforts to put it out of business.
The dispute centered around a decision by the SEIU to put the UHW into a trusteeship in early 2009. Local UHW leaders broke away to form a rival union, which they called the National Union of Healthcare Workers. In the process, the SEIU contended in its lawsuit, the former UHW leaders obstructed the UHW in its representation of is members. SEIU v. Sal Rosselli, 09-0404.
The lawsuit is part of a long-running conflict between the national SEIU leadership and the former leader of UHW, Sal Rosselli, who is one of the defendants in the case. The rival unions’ portrayals of the events leading up to the lawsuit could not be more different, with the UHW calling the former leaders’ efforts sabotage and the former leaders saying they were exercising their rights to protest SEIU decisions. Ultimately, jurors found Rosselli liable for $70,600, the third highest total for the 24 individual defendants in the case. The nine-member jury found NUHW liable for $724,000. The verdict came after a two-week trial and three-and-a-half days of deliberations.
“We’re very gratified,” said SEIU’s attorney, W. Gary Kohlman, of Bredhoff & Kaiser in Washington, D.C. “This case was always about the members.”
Kohlman said the members wanted the former UHW leaders to have consequences for their actions and that the jury had determined they should.
Dan Siegel, an attorney for the individual defendants and the National Union of Healthcare Workers from Siegel & Yee in Oakland, said he was “disappointed” in the verdict but pointed out that the SEIU had originally sought $25 million prior to the start of the trial.
“Obviously, we were hoping to completely defense it,” he said.
Siegel said the SEIU’s goal was obvious — the elimination of NUHW. In settlement talks before trial, the SEIU demanded $13 million and the dissolution of NUHW, he said.
“Our feeling is this is not a total victory, but it’s largely a victory given what was at stake,” Siegel said. “It certainly doesn’t put NUHW out of business. In fact, my clients are feeling every empowered in their efforts to build NUHW and to become the primary union for health care workers in California.”
NUHW has a pending motion for judgment as a matter of law before U.S. District Judge William Alsup. The motion argues the evidence at trial was not sufficient to support the plaintiffs’ claims. Siegel said his clients will appeal the verdict if it stands.
A spokesman for the SEIU-UHW said the verdict was “important” but not as important as having the claims aired in court.
“More important to the members is that they finally got the truth about what [the former leaders] had done to harm the members and sabotage the union,” Steve Trossman said.
A representative of the NUHW was unavailable for comment.
The UHW represents 150,000 health care workers in California. According to its website, NUHW has organized 3,357 new members and won seven of nine elections against the UHW since it was formed last year.