Category Archives: NLRB

March 21, 2017

Supreme Court Rules That NLRB Acting GC Became Ineligible To Serve After Nomination To Permanent Role

By Steve Gutierrez

Once a President nominates a candidate for a Senate-confirmed office, that person may not serve in an acting capacity for that office while awaiting Senate confirmation, pursuant to a ruling today by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 6-to-2 decision, the Court ruled that Lafe Solomon, who had been appointed by President Obama to serve as acting general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) during a vacancy, could no longer serve in that acting role after the President later nominated him to fill the position outright.

NLRB General Counsel Appointment

The position of general counsel of the NLRB must be filled through an appointment by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate – a so-called “PAS” office. When a vacancy in a PAS office arises, the President is permitted to direct certain officials to serve in the vacant position temporarily in an acting capacity. Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 (FVRA), only three classes of government officials may become acting officers. The FVRA,  however, prohibits certain persons from serving in an acting capacity once the President puts that person forward as the nominee to fill the position permanently.

In Lafe Solomon’s case, he was directed by President Obama in June 2010 to serve temporarily as the NLRB’s acting general counsel when the former general counsel resigned. Solomon had worked for ten years as the Director of the NLRB’s Office of Representation Appeals and was within the classes of officials who could be directed to serve in an acting capacity under the FVRA. In January 2011, President Obama nominated Solomon to serve as the NLRB’s general counsel on a permanent basis. Solomon continued to serve as acting general counsel for an additional two-plus years as the Senate failed to act on his nomination. In mid-2013, the President withdrew Solomon’s nomination, putting forward another candidate whom the Senate confirmed in late October 2013.

Company Facing ULP Argued Solomon Couldn’t Be Acting GC After Nomination

In January 2013, while Solomon was acting general counsel, SW General, Inc., a company that provides ambulance services, received a complaint alleging it committed an unfair labor practice (ULP) for failing to pay certain bonuses to employees. After an administrative law judge and the NLRB concluded that SW General had committed the ULP, the company argued in court that the complaint was invalid because Solomon could not legally perform the acting general counsel duties after the President had nominated him for the permanent position. The company pointed to wording in the FVRA restricting the ability of acting officers to serve after being nominated to hold the position permanently. Whether the FVRA prohibits all classes of acting officials or only first assistants who automatically assume acting duties from continuing to serve after nomination was the issue before the Supreme Court.

Once Nominated, Official Is No Longer Eligible To Serve In Acting Capacity

The Court ruled that once a person has been nominated for a vacant PAS office, he or she may not perform the duties of that office in an acting capacity. The Court rejected the NLRB’s position that the FVRA restricted only first assistants who were in an acting capacity, rather than restricting all classes of officials directed to serve in an acting capacity who are later nominated for the permanent position. In applying its ruling to Lafe Solomon, the Court ruled that Solomon’s continued service as the NLRB acting general counsel after he had been nominated to fill that position permanently violated the FVRA. NLRB v. SW General, Inc., ___ 580 U.S. ___ (2017).

Solomon’s Actions “Voidable”

So what does this mean for all of Solomon’s actions taken during the over two-year period in which Solomon improperly served as the acting general counsel after his nomination for the permanent position? For example, what happens to the ULP complaints filed by, or at Solomon’s direction, during that period?

The Court noted in a footnote that the FVRA exempts the general counsel of the NLRB from the general rule that actions taken in violation of the FVRA are void ab initio (i.e. from the beginning). The Court of Appeals had ruled that Solomon’s actions during that period were “voidable.” Because the NLRB did not appeal that part of the lower appellate court’s ruling, it was not before the Supreme Court to decide. Consequently, the Court of Appeals’ decision that Solomon’s actions are voidable stands. Accordingly, each action taken by Solomon during the time that he improperly served as acting general counsel would need to be challenged on an individual basis.

August 24, 2016

NLRB Reverses Position on Grad Student Assistants, Allowing Them To Unionize

By Steven Gutierrez

Overruling its 2004 Brown University decision, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) decided that graduate student assistants at private colleges and universities can be considered statutory employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), permitting them to organize and form a union. Columbia University, 364 NLRB 90 (August 23, 2016). The Board concluded that student assistants who perform paid work at the direction of their university have a common-law employment relationship with the university and therefore, are entitled to the protections of the NLRA.

Why Brown University Was Wrong

The 2004 Board that decided this issue in Brown University ruled that graduate assistants could not be statutory employees under the NLRA because they are primarily students and have a primarily educational relationship with the university, not an economic one. The current Board rejected that view, finding that because student assistants perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated, they are statutory employees and the fact that there may be another relationship not covered by the NLRA, namely an educational relationship, did not foreclose their coverage as employees.

The current Board also disagreed with the Brown University Board’s “fundamental belief that the imposition of collective bargaining on graduate students would improperly intrude into the educational process and would be inconsistent with the purposes and policies of the [NLRA].” Instead, this Board believes that allowing grad assistants to be covered employees meets the “unequivocal policy” of the NLRA to encourage the practice and procedure of collective bargaining, and will make sure that an entire category of workers are not deprived of the protections of the law.

Multiple Flip-Flops On Graduate Assistants

In overruling Brown University, the Board’s position returns to the position held in the 2000 New York University (NYU) ruling, which itself was overruled in Brown University. Prior to the NYU ruling, however, the Board had long held that various student assistants could not be included in petitioned-for bargaining units.

This new flip-flop on the issue of coverage for graduate student assistants is not surprising given the leanings and make-up of the majority of the current Board, which has favored the extension of coverage and its jurisdiction, when possible. Board member Philip Miscimarra dissented in this case, writing that he agreed with the Brown University reasoning that graduate student assistants have a predominately academic, rather than economic, relationship with their school. He would not have overruled Brown University, or permitted the petitioned-for bargaining unit to proceed.  Read more >>

August 23, 2016

Employer Violates NLRA By Barring Employees From Bringing Class or Collective Actions, Says Ninth Circuit

By Brian Mumaugh

Bad news for employers in the ongoing saga of whether an employer violates the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by requiring that employees pursue any legal dispute against the company on an individual basis, rather than in a class or collective action with other employees. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the NLRA precludes employees from waiving their right to have disputes heard collectively and an employer that requires employees to waive that right as a condition of employment commits an unfair labor practice. Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP, No. 13-16599 (9th Cir. August 22, 2016).

Broad Ruling Extends To Any “Separate Proceedings” Requirement

Accounting firm Ernst & Young required its employees to sign agreements mandating that all legal claims against the firm be pursued exclusively through arbitration and only as individuals in “separate proceedings.” When employee Stephen Morris brought a class and collective action in federal court alleging that the firm misclassified employees denying them overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act, Ernst & Young sought to compel arbitration on an individual basis pursuant to its arbitration agreement. The district court agreed, dismissing the federal court case and ordering arbitration.

Morris appealed, arguing, among other things, that the “separate proceedings” clause violated the NLRA. Morris relied on determinations by the National Labor Relations Board (the Board) in the D.R. Horton  and Murphy Oil cases in which the Board ruled that concerted action waivers violate the NLRA. The Ninth Circuit agreed. It ruled that when an employer requires employees to sign an agreement precluding them from bringing a concerted legal claim regarding wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment, the employer violates the NLRA.

The Court focused on the Board’s interpretation of the NLRA’s statutory right of employees “to engage in . . . concerted activities for the purpose of . . . mutual aid or protection” to include a right to join together to pursue workplace grievances, including through litigation. It characterized this as a labor law case, not an arbitration case. It stated that the problem with the contract was not that it required arbitration, but that it excluded all concerted employee legal claims. The Court explained that the same problem would exist “if the contract required disputes to be resolved through casting lots, coin toss, duel, trial by ordeal, or any other dispute resolution mechanism, if the contract (1) limited resolution to that mechanism and (2) required separate individual proceedings.” Read more >>

January 12, 2016

Anticipating Revisions To The “Persuader Rules” – What You Need To Know

Mumaugh_BBy Brian Mumaugh

As early as March, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) plans to issue its final rules that will significantly narrow the type of union-avoidance activities that employers and their labor attorneys and relations consultants may engage in without having to report those activities to the government. The tightening of the so-call “persuader rules” will mean that employers who utilize labor relations consultants, including lawyers, to help with union-avoidance or collective bargaining activities will need to disclose many more of those activities, and the fees paid for them.

Evolution of the “Persuader Rules”

In the late 1950’s, because of perceived questionable conduct by both unions and employers involved in union organizing and collective bargaining campaigns, Congress enacted the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA). The LMRDA seeks to make labor-management relations more transparent by imposing reporting and disclosure requirements on labor organizations and their officials, employers, and labor relations consultants.

Under the LMRDA, the reporting requirements for employers and their labor consultants are triggered when they undertake activities intended to directly or indirectly persuade employees to exercise (or not to exercise) the employees’ right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. Employers must file a Form LM-10 (Employer Report) that discloses all payments made to unions and union officials, persuader payments made to employees and employee committees, persuader agreements/arrangements made with labor relations consultants, including lawyers, which includes the amount and dates of payments made to such consultants, and any expenditures made to interfere with, restrain or coerce employees, or otherwise obtain information concerning employees or a labor organization. Labor relations consultants must file a Form LM-20 specifying, among other things, information about the consultant and the nature of the “persuader activities” to be performed. Under the LMRDA, the DOL must make all such forms available for public inspection.

The “Advice” Exemption

The LMRDA contains an exemption from the reporting requirements for persuader activities for services that give “advice” to the employer. Except for brief periods when the LMRDA was first enacted and again in 2001, the DOL has interpreted this “advice” exemption to apply to activities where a consultant or lawyer prepares a speech or documents for use by the employer, or revises materials initially drafted by the employer. In other words, as long as the consultant or lawyer did not directly deliver or disseminate speeches or materials to employees for the purpose of persuading them with respect to their organizational or bargaining rights, behind-the-scenes activities where the consultant/lawyer drafts materials for use by the employer would not trigger a reporting obligation. Under the proposed rules, that is about to change. 

Expanded Proposed Interpretation of “Advice” Exemption

Believing its long-standing interpretation of the “advice” exemption to be overly broad, the DOL proposed a narrower interpretation that would require reporting in any case in which the agreement or arrangement with a labor consultant/lawyer in any way calls for the consultant to engage in persuader activities, regardless of whether or not advice is also given. The revised interpretation would define reportable “persuader activity” to include activities where a lawyer or consultant provides material or communications to, or engages in other actions, conduct, or communications on behalf of an employer that at least in part, has the objective of persuading employees concerning their rights to organize or bargain collectively. Exempt “advice” would be limited to recommendations, verbal or written, regarding an employer’s decision or course of conduct.

Stated examples of covered persuader activities that would require disclosure include:

  • drafting, revising, or providing written materials for presentation, dissemination, or distribution to employees
  • drafting, revising, or providing a speech, video, or multi-media presentation to be presented, shown or distributed to employees
  • drafting, revising, or providing website content for employees
  • planning or conducting individual or group employee meetings, and training supervisors or employer representatives to do the same
  • coordinating or directing the activities of supervisors or employer representatives
  • establishing or facilitating employee committees
  • developing personnel policies or practices
  • deciding which employees to target for persuader activity or disciplinary action
  • conducting a seminar for supervisors or employer representatives

The DOL justifies this expansion of the reporting circumstances, in part, because the role of outside consultants and law firms in managing employers’ anti-union efforts has grown substantially over the years, citing reports that somewhere between 71% and 87% of employers facing organizing drives hire third-party consultants to assist in their counter-organizing efforts. The DOL also states that underreporting of persuader activities is a problem as “employees are not receiving the information that Congress intended they receive.” Regardless of its reasoning, the DOL’s proposed change of its 50-year old interpretation will result in significant burdens on both employers and their consultants.

March 2016 Is New Target Date for Final Rule

Almost five years has passed since the DOL published its proposed rule changing the “persuader rules.” After numerous delays in publishing its final rules, the DOL’s regulatory agenda indicates that it expects to issue the final “persuader rules” this March. We will let you know when the final rules are published, or if the timeline changes. In the meantime, you might want to take advantage of the next few months before the new rules kick in to obtain union-avoidance materials and training from your consultants now. At a minimum, talk to your labor relations consultant/labor lawyer about the upcoming changes so that you are aware of how they may impact your labor strategies in the future.

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December 4, 2015

Court Upholds NLRB Ruling On Overly Broad Employment Policies

Gutierrez_SBy Steven M. Gutierrez 

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) may feel emboldened after a recent ruling by the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the Board’s decision that an employer’s policies on investigation confidentiality, electronic communications, and work hours were overly broad, potentially chilling employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activities. As a result, employers should expect the further onslaught of NLRB attacks on seemingly neutral employment policies to continue, or worse, escalate.

NLRB’s Attack on Handbook Policies

In recent years, the Board has scrutinized many handbook policies, including those of non-union employers. As we’ve written in a past post, the NLRB attacks those policies that it believes interferes with, or chills, employees’ §7 rights to form labor organizations, bargain collectively, and engage in similar concerted activities. If the employer’s policy or rule would reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of their statutory rights, then the employer violates §8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act, committing an unfair labor practice.

Analysis of Whether Policies Violate NLRA

The D.C. Court of Appeals set forth the proper analysis for determining whether an employment policy or work rule can amount to an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Hyundai Am. Shipping Agency, Inc. v. NLRB, No. 11-1351 (D.C.Cir. Nov. 6, 2015). First, the Board must determine whether the policy explicitly restricts §7 rights, such as by restricting employees from discussing or forming a union. An explicit restriction on employees’ rights will invalidate the policy, amounting to an unfair labor practice.

In the absence of an explicit restriction on §7 rights, the Board must ask whether the rule:

  1. could be reasonably construed by employees to restrict §7 activity;
  2. was adopted in response to such activity; or
  3. has been used to restrict such activity.

If the answer is “yes” to any of these three questions, then the employer must show an adequate justification for the restrictive language to avoid it constituting an unfair labor practice.

Court Upholds Board Order On Three Policies

The Court reviewed the Board’s order regarding four policies maintained by employer Hyundai America Shipping Agency in its employee handbook, namely its policies on investigation confidentiality, electronic communications, work hours, and complaint provisions. Here is how the Court analyzed whether the Board correctly concluded that each of the policies was restrictive of employees’ §7 rights:

  • Investigative Confidentiality Rule: Hyundai had an oral rule that prohibited employees from discussing information about matters under investigation. The Court stated that “this blanket confidentiality rule clearly limited employees’ §7 rights to discuss their employment.” The Court then looked at whether Hyundai had offered a legitimate and substantial business justification for the rule that outweighed the adverse effect on its employees’ rights. While acknowledging that there may be a legitimate business justification for mandating confidentiality for particular types of investigations, such as sexual harassment investigations, the Court found that those concerns did not justify a ban on discussion of all investigations. Because the confidentiality rule was overly broad, the Court upheld the Board’s determination that it violated the NLRA.
  • Electronic Communications Rule: The electronic communications policy in Hyundai’s employee handbook stated that employees should only disclose information or messages from the company’s electronic communications systems to authorized persons. The Court stated that the key to determining the validity of this policy was whether the prohibition was limited to confidential information. Because Hyundai’s rule was not limited to the disclosure of confidential information, a reasonable reader could conclude that it applied to information about the terms and conditions of employment and therefore, it was overly broad and invalid.
  • Working Hours Rule: Hyundai maintained a handbook policy that allowed for employees to be disciplined, including termination, for “[p]erforming activities other than Company work during working hours.” Here, the key distinction is the use of the phrase “working hours” rather than “working time.” “Working time” excludes break periods so restrictions on union activity during working time is acceptable. On the other hand, “working hours” describes the period from the beginning of a shift to its end, including breaks. Because restrictions on union activity during working hours (sg., including break time) is presumptively invalid, the Court upheld the Board’s conclusion that Hyundai’s rule was invalid.
  • Complaint Provision: Hyundai’s handbook provided that employees should voice complaints directly to their immediate supervisor or to Human Resources, rather than complaining to fellow employees which would not resolve the problem. Although the Board had ruled this provision invalid, believing it prohibited employees from complaining about the terms or conditions of work among themselves, the Court disagreed. It stated that although the rule urged employees to voice complaints to a supervisor or to Human Resources, it was not mandatory, did not preclude alternative discussions, and did not provide penalties if an employee complained to fellow employees. Therefore, the Court found that the language would not be read to prohibit complaints protected by §7.

Court Rejects NLRB’s Investigation Confidentiality Rule Standard Affirmed in Banner Health

Interestingly, while discussing Hyundai’s investigation confidentiality rule, the Court rejected the ALJ’s opinion that in order to show a legitimate and substantial justification for an investigation confidentiality policy, the employer must determine whether any “investigation witnesses need protection, evidence is in danger of being destroyed, testimony is in danger of being fabricated and there is a need to prevent a cover up.” The NLRB had reaffirmed that standard in its widely cited Banner Health ruling on confidential investigation policies.

The D.C. Court of Appeals stated that it “need not and do[es] not endorse the ALJ’s novel view” on how employer’s must show a legitimate justification for an investigation confidentiality rule. The Court instead simply held that Hyundai’s confidentiality rule was “so broad and undifferentiated that the Board reasonably concluded that Hyundai did not present a legitimate business justification for it.”

Review and Narrow Your Policies

To help avoid NLRB scrutiny, review your employee handbook and other employment policies to determine whether any language could potentially chill employees’ §7 rights. If possible, narrow any restrictions that may infringe on employees’ rights and make certain that your organization can articulate a legitimate and substantial justification for your restrictions. Because these issues are continually evolving, discuss any questionable policy wording with your employment counsel.

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September 11, 2015

Broader Joint-Employer Test Leads to Teamsters Win At Browning-Ferris

Gutierrez_SBy Steve Gutierrez 

In a previous article, we noted that the NLRB’s recent Browning-Ferris ruling was significant for those employers who use temporary or staffing agencies to provide workers. The Board set a new, broader test for joint-employer status that does not require the purported joint employer to exercise control over the workers in question. Instead, if the company has the right to exercise control over the terms and conditions of certain workers, it can be deemed a joint employer even if it never actually exercises that control. Now we can see the significance of the impact.  

Based upon the joint-employer determination, the impounded ballots of the workers of Leadpoint Business Services, the entity that staffed Browning-Ferris’s California recycling plant, were counted as part of the bargaining unit, which provided a 73-17 margin in favor of representation by the Teamsters. Depending on the outcome of any objections filed by the company, the NLRB will certify the union as the collective bargaining representative for the recycling center’s workers. This allows the unit to collectively bargain over the terms and conditions of employment at that facility. 

Bargaining Over Terms Of Contingent Workers 

Think about this: Browning-Ferris does not “employ” the workers placed at its facility by staffing agency, Leadpoint. It doesn’t hire, pay, provide benefits to, or fire them. Yet, it will be required to sit down at the bargaining table across from the Teamsters to negotiate the terms and conditions of employment of those contingent workers over which it retains authority to control. That is the result of being found a joint employer of the bargaining-unit workers. 

Extension of Joint-Employer Test to Other Contexts? 

Joint-employer status is a critical determination for companies that use contingent workers as well as for franchises. And, it can apply not only in the union context, but also in other employment law contexts, such as for pay purposes under the Fair Labor Standards Act or for discrimination under Title VII. Even though the standards and policy behind a joint-employer relationship under other employment laws may differ from those behind the National Labor Relations Act, this new, broader test will likely be asserted in these other contexts in order to bring in franchisors and companies that use contingent workers as potentially liable parties. 

Appeal Over Joint-Employer Test Coming? 

Because of the high stakes involved in this ruling, it would not be surprising if Browning-Ferris (which is part of Republic Services, Inc.) appealed the NLRB’s ruling, taking its case to the applicable court of appeals. Another option is that after the union is certified, Browning-Ferris could refuse to bargain with the Teamsters which would lead to more proceedings before the Board, and ultimately, the courts. Given that the Board has already ruled in favor of the union on this matter, the company will likely have a better chance seeking review by circuit judges. Either way, this matter is probably not over. 

Stay tuned and we will let you know what develops further. What we do know, is the NLRB will not sit idle and we should expect it to use its power to push the envelope in favor of the nation’s unions.

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April 3, 2015

Presidential Veto Quashes Congressional Attempt to Overturn NLRB “Quickie” Election Rules

Husband_J By John Husband and Brad Williams 

On March 31, 2015, President Obama vetoed a joint resolution passed by both houses of Congress that sought to overturn the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB’s) rules designed to speed up the union election process. Scheduled to go into effect on April 14, 2015, these so-called “quickie” or “ambush” election rules significantly shorten the period of time between a petition for a union election and a vote. 

History of “Quickie” Election Rules 

Williams_BThe “quickie” election rules have a tortured history. First proposed in June 2011, the rules faced immediate and severe criticism that led to a watered-down version of the rules being adopted in December 2011. These watered-down rules went briefly into effect in April 2012, but were quickly invalidated by a federal court just two weeks later. The court ruled that the Board had lacked a statutorily mandated quorum when it voted to adopt the rules. 

Notably, the federal court also stated that nothing prevented a properly constituted quorum of the Board from voting to re-adopt the rules in the future. That is exactly what the Board did in February 2014. It re-proposed its original rules, and subsequently adopted the rules in December 2014. The new rules are slated to become effective on April 14th. 

Legal Challenges Continue 

Despite Congress’s ill-fated  attempt to block the rules under the Congressional Review Act, the rules still face potential hurdles. For instance, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit in the District of Columbia in January 2015 seeking to vacate the rules and enjoin their enforcement. Business groups in Texas filed a similar lawsuit in January 2015. These lawsuits allege numerous reasons why the rules should be invalidated, including alleged violations of the National Labor Relations Act and Congressional intent, alleged violations of the First Amendment and due process protections, and arbitrary and capricious rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act. However, the lawsuits will take time to wind through the courts, and their chances of success are uncertain. 

Anticipated Effects of Rules 

Barring any unexpected injunction before April 14th, employers should anticipate big changes from the new rules. The rules will shorten the period of time between a petition for a union election and a vote to perhaps fifteen or fewer days (as opposed to the five or more weeks under current practice). The rules are expected to boost organizing activity as unions attempt to increase their membership – and dues-generated revenue – through “ambush” elections. The compressed timeline between a petition and vote will limit employers’ ability to fully explain the pros and cons of union representation before an election, and limit employees’ ability to cast an informed vote. To retain flexibility in dealing directly with their employees, employers should be ready at the first hint of union organizing to educate their employees about the desirability of union representation. Advance preparation, and a properly orchestrated counter-organizational campaign, will be key.

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March 30, 2015

Drafting Employee Handbook Policies That Pass NLRB Muster

Mumaugh_B

By Brian Mumaugh 

All employers, union and non-union alike, should think about making a thorough review of their employee handbook and policies in light of a recent report on employer workplace rules by the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB’s) General Counsel, Richard Griffin. In his report, Griffin describes a variety of employment policies that the Board has found unlawful and offers the Board’s reasoning as to why. He also points out acceptable policies and explains what wording or context made that policy lawful. The bottom line: a single word or phrase can, in this Board’s view, make the difference between an acceptable policy or one that violates the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). 

Overly Broad Handbook Policies Can Chill Employees’ Rights 

The Board has long taken the position that even neutrally worded employment policies can violate the NLRA if they have a chilling effect on the right of employees to engage in protected concerted activities. These activities, referred to as Section 7 activities, include discussing wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment with other employees and with outside parties, such as government agencies, union representatives and the news media. 

In his March 18th Report, GC Griffin explains that the majority of policies found by the Board to violate the NLRA, were unlawful because employees could reasonably construe the language of the rule as prohibiting or infringing on Section 7 activities. Consequently, many well-intentioned, seemingly common-sense policies prove problematic for employers due to their possible interpretation as limiting an employee’s right to discuss their pay or working conditions with others.

Handbook Policies That Result in Violations 

The report sets out eight categories of work rules that frequently violate the NLRA and then distinguishes between unacceptable and acceptable language for such rules. The categories and the unlawful aspects of each may be summarized as follows: 

  • Confidentiality Policies: may not prohibit employees from discussing their wages, hours, workplace complaints or other personal information; prohibiting the disclosure of the company’s confidential information may be acceptable;
  • Employee Conduct Toward the Company and Supervisors: may not prohibit employees from engaging in negative, disrespectful or rude behavior or other conduct that may harm the company’s business or reputation; prohibiting employees from disparaging the company’s products, or requiring employees to be respectful to customers, vendors and competitors will typically be acceptable;
  • Conduct Toward Fellow Employees: may not prohibit “all” negative, derogatory, insulting or inappropriate comments between employees as that may interfere with the employees’ right to argue and debate with each other about management, unions and the terms and conditions of their employment; requiring employees to treat each other professionally and with respect as well as banning harassing and discriminatory conduct will typically be lawful;
  • Interactions with Third Parties: may not completely ban employees from talking to the media or government agencies; a policy noting that employees are not authorized to speak on behalf of the company without authorization may be considered lawful;
  • Restricting the Use of Company Logos, Copyrights and Trademarks: may not prohibit all use of company logos and intellectual property because the NLRB upholds employees’ right to use company names, logos and trademarks on picket signs, leaflets and other protest materials; policies that require employees to respect all copyright and intellectual property laws is acceptable;
  • Restricting Photos and Recordings: may not ban employees from taking pictures or making recordings on company property; a policy may limit the scope of such a prohibition depending on a competing protective right (such as a healthcare facility protecting patient privacy by limiting photos of patients);
  • Restrictions on Leaving Work: because employees have the right to go on strike, a policy that prohibits employees from “walking off the job” will be unlawful; policies stating that failure to report for a scheduled shift or leaving early without permission as grounds for discipline may be acceptable; and
  • Conflict-of-Interest Policies: policy may not ban any activity “that is not in the company’s best interest;” policies that give examples of what constitutes a conflict-of-interest, such as having a financial or ownership interest in a customer, supplier or competitor, or exploiting one’s position for personal gain will likely be lawful. 

Few Bright Lines for Lawful Policies 

The report goes on to offer analysis of additional policies dealing with topics such as handbook disclosure, social media and employee conduct related to a particular employer who agreed to revise their policies as part of a settlement agreement with the NLRB. You may have similar policies in your handbook, making it worthwhile to read what policy language the Board considers problematic and what may pass muster. The takeaway, however, is that the lawfulness of many policies may turn on a single word or phrase.  At the present time, it is unclear whether GC Griffin’s report will withstand legal challenge.  The best advice is that given the report and its contents, it is important to take time to review your handbook and compare your wording to the examples provided in the report. Although the report is not a legally binding interpretation of the NLRA, it can help you make an informed decision about the risks involved in including certain provisions in your employee handbook.

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December 23, 2014

National Labor Relations Board continues down a controversial path!

By  Steven M. Gutierrez         Gutierrez.Steven

In recent years, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) has issued some notable decisions that impact both union and non-union employers nationwide.  In the past month, two important pronouncements have been made by the NLRB.  Both are controversial; however, anyone that has been following the last several years’ NLRB activity, neither was unexpected. 

The first pronouncement is found in a holding of the NLRB issued on December 11, 2014 in Purple Communications, Inc., 361 NLRB No. 126.  In this matter, Purple Communication’s electronic communications policy, which prohibited employees of Purple Communications from using the company’s email and communication systems in activities on behalf of organizations that had no professional or business affiliation with the company, was found unlawful.  In holding that the policy was unlawful, the NLRB overruled Register Guard.  Under Register Guard, employers could prohibit employees from using the employer’s email system, provided that the ban was not applied discriminatorily.  Under the new Purple Communications standard, there is now a presumption that employees who have been given access to the employer’s communication system are entitled to use that system to engage in concerted protected activity during their non-working time.  Employers who can show special circumstances can justify a ban on this kind of communication, but the burden will be high and the ban must be supported by evidence that there is a specific business interest at issue. 

The second pronouncement comes from the issuance of a final rule, on December 12, 2014, when the NLRB amended representation election procedures.  The new rules become effective on April 14, 2015.  Pursuant to the final rule, the time period between filing of a union election petition and the date of the election is reduced and expedited.  What normally would have taken six to seven weeks, will now be accomplished in 10-21 days.  Further, issues related to voter eligibility and bargaining unit inclusion are resolved after the election.  Notably, an employer will now be required to submit a “Statement of Position” prior to the pre-election hearing, and will be found to waive arguments concerning the election that are not raised in the Statement of Position. This new rule will most certainly make it easier for unions to organize and reduce the time an employer previously had to communicate with its employees in advance of a union petition requesting a vote.

Based upon these two developments and others in the past year, you can be virtually certain that the NLRB will continue with its controversial ways in the coming year.  It is clear to this author, the NLRB would like to make it easy for unions to assert greater influence and stem the tide of the continued decline in membership.

 

November 10, 2014

NLRB Unwilling to Give Up on Workers’ Right to Class Actions

Mumaugh_BBy Brian Mumaugh

Reaffirming its controversial D.R. Horton decision, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) recently ruled that an employer who required its employees to agree to resolve all employment-related claims through individual arbitration, waiving their right to pursue class actions, violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  Though two members of the Board dissented, the three member majority pointed to the core objective of the NLRA, namely the protection of workers acting in concert, to find that mandatory arbitration agreements waiving an employee’s right to file a class or collective action is unlawful.  Murphy Oil USA, Inc., 361 NLRB No. 72 (Oct. 28, 2014).

Employees Filed FLSA Collective Action

Four employees of Murphy Oil USA, Inc., which operates over 1,000 retail fueling stations across 21 states, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Alabama alleging that the company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by failing to pay overtime and requiring employees to perform work-related activities off-the-clock.  They brought the case as a collective action under the FLSA which allows them to sue on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated Murphy Oil employees.  The company asked the court to dismiss the collective action, seeking to enforce arbitration agreements signed by the employees that require that all claims be arbitrated on an individual basis.  One of the plaintiff-employees then filed an unfair labor charge with the NLRB alleging that the company was violating Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA by using and enforcing mandatory arbitration agreements that prohibited employees from engaging in protected, concerted activities. 

Board Asserts D.R. Horton Was Correctly Decided

In deciding this NLRA violation issue, the Board believes the rationale articulated in its 2012 D.R. Horton case is correct, asserting that “[m]andatory arbitration agreements that bar employees from bringing joint, class, or collective workplace claims in any forum restrict the exercise of the substantive right to act concertedly for mutual aid or protection that is central to the National Labor Relations Act.”  The Board states that the basic premise of federal labor law – protecting the right of workers to engage in collective action – makes the NLRA different from other labor and employment statutes.  The Board points to earlier Supreme Court decisions that made clear that the NLRA protects employees “when they seek to improve working conditions through resort to administrative and judicial forums  . . .”  Other court decisions cited by the Board held that individual agreements between employees and an employer (as opposed to collective bargaining agreements) cannot restrict employees’ Section 7 rights.  Relying on these cases and the majority’s interpretation of the core objective of federal labor law, the Board adheres to its position that protecting workers’ right to pursue collective actions to improve working conditions is a substantive right under the NLRA that cannot be waived by employees through a mandatory arbitration agreement.

Fifth Circuit Got D.R. Horton Decision Wrong, According to the Majority Opinion of Board

In December 2013, a divided Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the NLRA did not override the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), thereby allowing an employer’s arbitration agreement to be enforced according to its terms, including the agreement’s waiver of class claims.  D.R. Horton, Inc. v. NLRB, ___ F.3d ___, 2013 WL 6231617 (5th Cir. Dec. 3, 2013).  Rather than settling the issue for the NLRB and employers nationwide, the Fifth Circuit’s decision did little to quell the NLRB’s belief that class action waivers violate the NLRA.  In the Murphy Oil case, the Board attempts to explain why it believes the Fifth Circuit got it wrong. 

First, the Board asserts that the Fifth Circuit simply followed other FAA cases that did not involve a substantive right under Section 7 of the NLRA.  The Board argues that both the NLRA and the FAA must be accommodated and the Fifth Circuit’s decision gave too little weight to the NLRA and its underlying labor policy.  Second, the Board states that the Fifth Circuit’s decision forces workers into more costly and disruptive forms of concerted activity than bringing a collective action in court.  The Board believes that there is no basis for carving out concerted legal activity as entitled to less protection than other concerted activities, such as picketing, strikes and boycotts.  Third, the Board notes that the Supreme Court, while favoring arbitration, prohibits a prospective waiver of a party’s right to pursue statutory remedies and an arbitration agreement that precludes employees from filing joint, class or collective claims regarding working conditions in any forum amounts to a prospective waiver of a right guaranteed by the NLRA. 

Analysis By Other Circuits Rejected by Board

The Board pays little attention to and dismisses decisions by three other circuit courts of appeal that rejected the Board’s D.R. Horton rationale.  In essence, the Board states that the Second and Eighth Circuits purportedly did not conduct a thorough analysis of the legal issues and the Ninth Circuit amended its decision to refrain from deciding the issue.  Consequently, the Board found those decisions to be unpersuasive.

Two Board Members Dissent

Two of the five board members dissented, rejecting the majority’s D.R. Horton rationale.  Member Miscimarra stated that the NLRA “cannot reasonably be interpreted as giving employees a broad-based right to “class” treatment under other Federal, State, and local laws.” Member Johnson stated that the Board’s “interpretation of the FAA – which otherwise requires an agreement to be enforced exactly according to its terms – would allow Section 7 to swallow up the FAA itself.”  The dissenters also noted that the majority essentially ignored numerous clear decisions of the Supreme Court.  In citing the Supreme Court’s 2011 AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepcion case, member Johnson stated “Notably, the Court forbade [the majority’s] interpretation [of the FAA] when it decided that the FAA’s savings clause could not be construed to include a right that would be “absolutely inconsistent” with the FAA’s provisions.”  He went on to write:

The governing law could not be plainer.  Provisions in arbitration agreements precluding class actions may not be condemned simply because they restrict an employee’s ability to use litigation procedures established under other statutes in litigating those employment-related claims.  This is especially so where the governing statutes clearly describe the litigation procedures as procedural rights.

The dissenting members believe that employees and employers may enter into agreements that waive class procedures in litigation or arbitration. 

What’s Next For Arbitration Agreements That Waive Class Actions?

The current majority of the Board appears unpersuaded by federal court decisions—not to mention the Supreme Court of the United States–holding that its position in D.R. Horton  is simply wrong.  It appears that, absent a further Supreme Court decision on the issue, the NLRB General Counsel likely will continue to issue complaints against employers who require employees to sign arbitration agreements that include a waiver of joint, class and collective actions.  If and when the makeup of the Board changes, the dissenting opinion may become the majority opinion for future cases.  In the meantime, employers who mandate such agreements should continue to enforce them.  In other words, if faced with a class or collective action by an employee or employees who signed an agreement waiving class claims, the employer should ask the court to compel individual arbitration, dismissing the class/collective action.  Despite the Board’s current position,  a court is likely to grant that request.  Employers should review their arbitration agreements, however, to ensure that any disputes arising under the NLRA are not subject to the mandatory arbitration provision and that employees are not prohibited from participating in proceedings before the Board.

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