Illinois Supreme Court: Union Workers Can’t Sue Under Biometric Law

April 17, 2023 by

Illinois’ top court said U.S. labor law bars unionized workers from suing their employers for violations of the state’s biometric privacy law, which can expose companies to massive penalties.

The Illinois Supreme Court unanimously held that campus security workers at Roosevelt University in Chicago must bring claims that the school used their fingerprints for timekeeping without their consent in union arbitration rather than court.

The university was backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest American business lobby, and groups representing the retail and restaurant industries.

The groups in a brief last year said a ruling against Roosevelt would create uncertainty over the enforceability of union contracts and hobble employers’ ability to negotiate agreements with unions.

The university and lawyers for the plaintiff did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) requires companies to obtain permission before collecting fingerprints, retinal scans and other biometric information from workers and consumers.

The law imposes penalties of up to $5,000 per violation, which can add up quickly in class action lawsuits.

The Illinois Supreme Court last month said fast-food chain White Castle System Inc must face claims that it scanned the fingerprints of 9,500 employees without their consent, which the company says could cost it $17 billion.

The BIPA, adopted in 2008, is the only law in the U.S. that grants workers and consumers a right to sue over the mishandling of biometric information.

But the state Supreme Court said federal labor law preempts that right for unionized workers because their collective bargaining agreements establish procedures for arbitrators to hear legal disputes.

A Chicago-based federal appeals court came to the same conclusion in a pair of cases decided since 2019.

Only about 6% of private-sector U.S. workers are union members, so the ruling is not likely to significantly decrease the number of lawsuits alleging violations of BIPA.