HealthBridge Sues SEIU, Claims Extortion

James Brudney in Hartford Courant, October 10, 2012

Media Source

HealthBridge Management and CareOne, two interconnected companies that own and run nursing homes in six states, including eight in Connecticut, have sued the union that it has been battling for years in New Jersey and Connecticut.

About 600 Service Employees International Union members from five homes in Connecticut have been striking since July.

The companies allege that the pattern of actions by SEIU, which have included efforts to enlist politicians and liberal activists to shame the company into a more generous stance towards its workers, are criminal extortion under the RICO act.

This is not the first time SEIU has been sued under the anti-racketeering statute, and it settled out of court when Sodexo, a food distribution company, sued in 2011.

The companies put out a press release saying "the suit is not about collective bargaining or other traditional labor activity but instead involves what is effectively economic terrorism."

The press contact on the release was not immediately available after the release was issued. The local SEIU spokeswoman was also not immediately available.

The federal government is suing the companies for breaking labor laws around collective bargaining, and have asked a federal judge in Hartford to force HealthBridge to put the strikers back to work, and restore the benefits that the company unilaterally reduced earlier this year.

The National Labor Relations Board is also perusing a case through its own system against HealthBridge, and that trial in front of an administrative law judge in Hartford resumes October 17.

The company, saying the union would not bend, ended the pension for workers and dramatically increased cost sharing for health insurance premiums at the same time it increased wages by 2.2 percent. The NLRB says that action was illegal.

Fordham University Law Professor James Brudney said in recent years companies have been using the RICO statutes as a way to gain the upper hand against unions they're in disputes with.

"As a general proposition the notion that hard bargaining or political pressure or appeals to agencies or courts is extortion is simply a loser – or it should be," he said.

Some of these cases are dismissed the first time they come up in front of a judge, Brudney said. But when they are not dismissed, the union will usually settle out of court and back away from the negative publicity campaigns that inspired the lawsuits.

"The union can't ignore them even if ultimately they would not succeed on the merits," he said. "I think it's a misuse of federal law."