Articles Posted in Union and Labor Issues

The NLRB issued another social-media decision last week, finding that an employer violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) with respect to one “Facebook firing” but clearing the employer with respect to a second termination.  I’ll leave it to my blogging cohorts to write about the termination that didn’t get the employer into trouble and will focus in today’s post just the one that did.Employment Law Cookies_3

The Facebook firing that landed the employer, a Maryland ambulance company, in hot water was in response to an employee’s comment, posted on a former co-worker’s Facebook page.  The former co-worker, the complainant’s partner, posted on her Facebook page a note indicating that she’d been fired by the employer.  The complainant, William Norvell, and others, posted comments in response.  One of Norvell’s comments was a suggestion that his former co-worker get a lawyer and take the company to court.  Later, he added that she also “could contact the labor board.”  Someone turned over a printed copy of the posts to the HR Director who, after consulting with the COO, decided to terminate Norvell.

I hope it doesn’t surprise most readers that the Board was not happy about the decision to terminate and found that the termination violated the NLRA.  One of the basic foundations of employment law is this:

Thou shalt not take adverse action against an employee in response to the employee’s protected activity.

The law (several laws, actually), prohibits this.  It’s called retaliation.  In non-legalese, I equate retaliation to telling a child he may have a cookie, holding out the cookie jar, and then smacking his hand when he proceeds to take one.  You may not punish someone for doing what the law provides he may do.

Applied in this context, the former co-worker certainly had a right to consult a lawyer.  She also had a right to contact “the labor board,” whether that meant the state Department of Labor or the Regional Office of the NLRB.  If her termination had been for lawful reasons, the lawyer, with any luck, would have told her so.  So, too, would the DOL or NLRB.  And, armed with that knowledge, she could move on with her life.  But she had a right to investigate her legal rights either way.

And, in turn, Norvell had a right to suggest or even encourage her to investigate those rights.  Consequently, Norvell was engaging in protected legal activity for which he could not be “punished” (or, as we like to say in the law, “be subjected to an adverse employment action”).

Butler Med. Transport, LLC, 5-CA-97810, -94981, and –97854 (Sept. 4, 2013).

See also:

Lawful Employer Investigations via Facebook . . . Sort of

Why the NLRB Is Its Own Worst Enemy

Another Dizzying Ride on the NLRB Roller Coaster

I Heart Confidentiality. The NLRB Does Not.

Pop Goes the Weasel . . . And the NLRA

NLRB Upholds Legality of Facebook Firing

Sticks ‘n Stones May Break Your Bones, But Workers Can Defame You

Is the NLRB In Need of a Dictionary?

The NLRB’s New Webpage Targets Your Employees

The NLRB’s social-media war has been front and center for employers since 2010.  Decisions by administrative law judges and by the Board itself, as well as advisory memoranda from the Acting General Counsel have created an impossible patchwork of prohibitions and rules that, if followed, would make managing an efficient workforce effectively impossible.  And it doesn’t stop there.

But social media hasn’t been the only target in the NLRB’s sights. There have been a series of decisions and other events that, if taken seriously, make the NLRB seem more out of touch than ever.  The Board’s positions have become so extreme that, in my opinion, they’re likely to work to employers’ advantage as the public disgust grows. Here are a few of the reasons that I believe the NLRB is likely its own worst enemy.

NLRB Message No. 1:  Racist Language and Racially Insensitive Displays In the Workplace Are Perfectly Acceptable

An employee wore a shirt with “slave” and a picture of a ball and chain printed on the back.  The employee, who was a known union supporter, was disciplined pursuant to the employer’s dress-code policy, which prohibited clothing displaying: (a) vulgar or obscene words or phrases; (b) images that may be racially, sexually or otherwise offensive; or (c) content that is derogatory to the Company.  An ALJ found that the dress code was unlawfully overbroad because it prohibited protected concerted activities and racially or sexually discriminatory language.

NLRB Message No. 2:  The Supreme Court Ain’t the Boss of Me

In 20__, the Board issued its D.R. Horton decision, in which it held that employees could not waive their right to bring a class action under the NLRA. Earlier this year, though, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant, that arbitration agreements should be enforced.  But the AmEx case was brought under antitrust law, not the NLRA, so it did not directly overrule D.R. Horton.  Nevertheless, many employment lawyers believe that the ruling in AmEx would effectively overturn the Board’s ruling.

Well, an ALJ disagrees. On Monday, a judge found that a mandatory arbitration agreement, which waived the right to pursue a class action, violated the the NLRA. Instead of following the Supreme Court’s direction as stated in the AmEx case, the judge ruled that she was bound by the Board’s decision in D.R. Horton unless and until it was overturned.

NLRB Message No. 3:  Your Business Is the Board’s Business

In a decision that shocked many employer’s lawyers, the Board affirmed the decision of an ALJ, which held that a confidentiality requirement violated the NLRA. Specifically, the employer’s mortgage bankers were required to sign employment contracts, which included a confidentiality provision that precluded those employees from disclosing certain personnel information, including: (a) “personal information of coworkers;” (b) home phone numbers or cellphone numbers; (c) addresses; or (d) email addresses. 

Again, the ALJ determined that this provision was overly broad in violation of the NLRA.  Most troubling to me is that the Board saw fit to take on language in a contract as opposed to in an employee handbook.  Delaware law heavily favors the enforcement of contracts, including employment contracts. The NLRB seems to take the position that the ability of parties to negotiate and execute contracts is irrelevant.

A Message for Employers

Although the recent decisions by the NLRB have been frustrating for employers (to put it mildly), there is a bright side. It may well be that the NLRB’s position has become so extreme that it has managed to get the attention of more and more employers.  And the attention has not been positive. If the NLRB continues in this direction, it may just result in more harm than the Board expects.

What does the NLRB have against handbooks? Doesn’t the Board have policies and procedures for its employees? I imagine it does, don’t you? So why does the Board continue to find fault with employers’ workplace policies?

The Board’s recent Order has my head spinning like I spent the afternoon on a roller coaster. In GCA Services Group, Inc.,, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 99, AFL-CIO, filed a UPL, contesting the legality of various provisions in the employer’s handbook. The employer and the Union resolved the dispute by a Formal Settlement Stipulation, which was approved by the Board on January 16, 2013.

As a result of the Stipulation, the employer must remove the disputed provisions from the hourly-employee handbook, which, according to the Board’s Order, are “overly broad and discriminatory.”

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Ok, kids, hang on tight. Here’s where the ride gets a little scary. Please keep your arms and other body parts inside the car until we have completed the descent.

As you may have guessed, the Confidentiality provision was the first to go. Here’s just a portion of the offensive language:

Confidential, proprietary, and private information about [the Company], employees, and customers, is intended for use within the scope of your job at the facility.

Not only is the company’s information no longer confidential but the employees’ personnel records are now open for business. Here’s the language that the Board says have to go:

Your employment record is considered confidential and includes your resume, benefit selections, performance reviews, employment history, and other employment information.

Even the non-harassment policy was a problem! I’m guessing it was the following language regarding confidentiality that caused the Board heartburn:

Confidentiality will be maintained throughout the investigative process to the extent practicable and consistent with the Company’s need to undertake a full investigation.

Perhaps the biggest shocker was the issue the Board had with the company’s policy titled, Use of Communication Systems, which outlined the acceptable use of company-provided email.

The problem with the Settlement for purposes of prevention is that there’s no indication of what exactly the Board objected to or what language the Board would not find objectionable. It seems virtually impossible that the Board took issue with each and every sentence of each of the disputed policies. But we really don’t know, since large excerpts were quoted in the opinion. And we definitely don’t know how the provisions could be altered to comply with the NLRA.

GCA Servs. Group, Inc., 28-CA-080785 and -083504 (Jan. 16, 2013)

Last week, I posted about the decision of an ALJ finding that Quicken Loans’ confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions contained in its employment contracts violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Before the new year, though, the NLRB gave us some indication about its position with respect to confidentiality in the workplace. In short, it is not a fan.
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On December 28, 2012, the NLRB announced its decision in American Baptist Homes of the West d/b/a Piedmont Gardens. In that decision, the Board overruled a decision from 1978, which established a categorical exemption for witness statements made during a workplace investigation. Under that long-standing precedent, an employer did not have to provide such witness statements to the union representing an employee concerning discipline.

Well, not anymore. Under the new decision, which found that the bright-line rule established in Anheuser-Busch, Inc., should be replaced by a balancing test. The Board found that the NLRA imposes on an employer a “general obligation” to furnish a union with relevent information necessary to perform its duties. Under the new balancing test, the employer will have to determine whether it has “any legitimate and substantial confidentiality interests.”

I’ve written before about the NLRB’s apparent lack of understanding of what exactly an investigation entails. By definition, a legitimate investigation involves legitimate confidentialty concerns. I won’t repeat myself here but will note that it’s not too late for us to pool together and buy the Board a new dictionary. Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, after all.

Just when you think the NLRA has been expanded as far as it can possibly go, POP!! Along comes a decision yet again expanding the reach of the NLRA and limiting the ability of employers to manage their workforces. The latest such expansion comes from an Administrative Law Judge in an unfair labor practice charge filed against

The NLRB issued its decision today in Karl Knauz Motors, Inc. Readers will recall that the employee at Knauz’s BMW dealership filed a charge alleging that he had been unlawfully terminated for engaging in NLRA-protected activity when he was fired for comments he’d made on his Facebook page. The employee-salesman first posted critical comments about the dealership’s plans for a big sales event. Shortly thereafter, the employee posted pictures of a small vehicle accident involving a customer at the Range Rover dealership next door, which was also owned by Karl Knauz. The employer fired the salesman when a competitor reported the photographs.

An ALJ determined that the employee had engaged in protected concerted activity when he posted about the sales event. He was not engaged in protected activity when he posted the accident pictures because, “It was posted solely by [the employee], apparently as a lark, without any discussion with any other employee of the Respondent and had no connection to any of the employees’ terms and conditions of employment.”

The Board’s decision, dated September 28 and released today, found that the termination did not violate the NLRA because the activity was not concerted or protected. This is a small victory for employers–but a victory, nonetheless. There has been a great deal of activity at the NLRB in the recent weeks and we can expect more in the weeks to come.

Last week was a busy one at the Governor’s office, where Governor Jerry Brown signed into law no less than three new laws with a pro-labor, pro-employee theme. The first two laws were a package deal, making California is the first State to enact legislation that prohibits employers and educators from requesting employees’ and students’ social-networking passwords. Gov. Brown announced that he’d signed the twin bills into law via a Twitter post on Thursday.
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California is the second State after Delaware to prohibit universities and colleges from requiring students to turn over their passwords to their social-networking accounts. It is the third State, following Maryland and Illinois, to enact similar legislation providing these privacy protections to employees and applicants. And similar legislation is pending in several States. New Jersey’s version of the Facebook-privacy law was released by a Senate committee at the end of September.

The day after Gov. Brown signed the bills into law, he signed a third bill, which declared May to be Labor History Month. What, you ask, does this actually mean? Well, it means that school districts in the State will commemorate the month with educational exercises intended to teach students about the role of the labor movement in California and across the country.

The bill extends Labor History Week into a full month and moves the observation from the first week of April to the month of May. According to the Sacramento Bee, many of California’s school districts are on spring break the first week of April, and supporters of the bill said the rest of the month is busy for students because they are preparing for statewide tests.

I think it’s safe to say that last week was a good week for the pro-labor movement in California.

The NLRB continues to whittle away the ability of employers to manage the operations of their businesses. In the past two years, the NLRB and its Acting General Counsel have issued a slew of opinions and advisory memoranda in which they’ve proclaimed various workplace rules to be in violation of the NLRA. Many of the rules they’ve found to be unlawful have been standard issue in workplaces around the country for many years. And many employers (and employers’ lawyers) believe that the NLRB’s interpretation of the Act is alarmingly overbroad.

The latest decision that threatens the workplace as we know it was issued last week, on September 7. In Costco Wholesale Corporation, Case 3A-CA-012421, 358 NLRB No. 106, Chairman Pearce and Members Griffin and Block overturned the ruling of an Administrative Law Judge. There were several workplace rules at issue in the case but the one of particular interest to me read as follows:

[S]tatements posted electronically . . . that damage the Company, defame any individual or damage any person’s reputation, or violate the policies outlined in the Costco Employee Agreement may be subject to discipline, up to and including termination of employment.

When I read that prohibition, I am inclined to give it a pretty high grade. What I like most about the provision is that it requires actual harm to occur. It does not prohibit employees from engaging in social-media in a way that may cause harm or that may damage the reputation of the company or others. It requires that some harm actually occur before a violation will be found.

Alas, the NLRB and I apparently use a different grading scale because the Board found that the policy was, indeed, overly broad in violation of the Act. The Board’s analysis, as it always does, turns on whether the policy would reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.

The Board found that this policy would chill such speech because its “broad prohibition” clearly encompasses concerted communications protesting the company’s treatment of its employees. In other words, the NLRB concluded that employees would likely construe the rule as prohibiting them from speaking negatively about the Company.

So how could the rule be fixed? Well, the Board implied that there may be two ways to improve it, if not correct it entirely. First, the Board indicated yet again that disclaimer language may have saved the policy. If there had been some language explaining that the rule did not apply to protected activities, that may have helped. (No guarantee, of course, nor was there any sample language provided).

Second, the Board indicated that the rule should have been limited to acts that fall outside the protections of the NLRA, such as conduct that is “malicious, abusive, or unlawful.” I could almost laugh out loud at this suggestion. Almost.

In my opinion, a policy should never hinge on intent. Who’s to say what the “real” reason is when an employee posts a negative comment about his employer? Maybe it’s malice. Maybe it’s stupidity. Maybe he’s having a really bad day and just wants to take it out on somebody or something other than himself. Who knows? Not me and, I suggest, not his employer. Let’s not play Backseat Psychic, shall we? Leave the intent-based restrictions to my colleagues who practice criminal law.

If there’s one thing I’d give the NLRB, it’s consistency. If a workplace rule attempts to regulate employees’ online activities, it’s a safe bet that the Board is going to be skeptical of it, at the least. Even if the rule prohibits employees from harming their employer, the Board may find it to violate the NLRA. Harm away, employee. Harm away.

A recent decision by the NLRB has many employers (and their lawyers) up in arms. It has left me wondering whether maybe the Board needs a dictionary. Blacks-Law-Dictionary.jpg

In Banner Health Systems, 358 NLRB 93 (2012), the Board held that an employer’s instruction to employees to keep information confidential during an internal investigation violated the employee’s Section 7 rights under the NLRA. In that case, an employee filed an internal whistleblower complaint about instructions he’d received from his supervisor that the employee felt would endanger patients. An HR consultant told the employee not to discuss the matter with co-workers while it was being investigated.

The ALJ held that this prohibition did not violate the NLRA but the NLRB disagreed.
As the basis for its finding, the NLRB found that, although an employer could require its employees to maintain the confidentiality of an investigation, it must first determine whether that step is really necessary. The Board held that, to make this determination, an employer must first look at whether: (1) witnesses were in need of protection; (2) evidence was in danger of being destroyed; (3) testimony was in danger of being fabricated; and (4) there was a need to prevent a cover-up.

So, dear readers, have you ever conducted an internal investigation in the workplace? An “investigation,” by its very definition, implies that there is a suspicion and/or report of wrongdoing. (You don’t say that you’re going to “investigate” whether an employee put in all-star effort to exceed his sales quota last month, do you?). If you are conducting an investigation of any kind and under any circumstances, I would argue that, at the very least, the last three questions suggested by the Board will be answered in the affirmative.

If you didn’t care whether the to-be-questioned witnesses got together and matched their stories up in advance, you wouldn’t call it an investigation, would you? You’d call it conversation. Heck, you may even call it party talk, or dinner-table chit-chat but you would not call it an “investigation.”

But you needn’t take my word for it. Black’s Law Dictionary, defines the word, investigate as follows:

To inquire into (a matter) systematically; to make (a suspect) the subject of a criminal inquiry

Continuing the FLSA theme from last week, today’s post is about the impact of a recent decision by the 5th Circuit in Martin v. Spring Break Productions, LLC, No. 11-30671 (5th Cir. July 24, 2012). The relevant facts of the Martin decision are very simple. Employees filed a grievance with their Union, in which they alleged that they had not been paid for all time worked. The Union investigated the claims but concluded that it could not determine whether or not the employees had worked on the days alleged. The Union and the employer entered into a settlement agreement to resolve the dispute.

The agreement recognized that “disputes remain[ed] between the parties as to the amounts that may be due.” Despite the disputes, the agreement prohibited the employees from pursuing future legal action against the employer after receiving their settlement payments. The agreement was not signed by, nor was it intended to be signed by the employees themselves but, instead, by the Union on the employees’ behalf. The agreement expressly provided that the Union had the full power and authority to enter into the settlement on the employees’ behalf.

Before the agreement was signed by the Union, the employees filed suit in California state court. The employer removed the suit to federal court. The court dismissed the claims based on the settlement agreement. The employees appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, where they made two arguments with respect to the settlement agreement.

First, the employees argued that the agreement was not enforceable against them because they had not signed it and never agreed to it. The employees did not dispute that they’d received “full payment” for their claims pursuant to the agreement or that they’d cashed the checks they’d received pursuant to the agreement. The 5th Circuit quickly rejected this part of the employee’s argument and found, instead, that they were bound by the decision of its Union, which had been recognized as the exclusive representative of the bargaining unit.

Second, the employees argued that, even if the agreement was binding on them, the release that it contained was invalid because individuals may not privately settle FLSA claims. This argument was predicated on a decision by the 11th Circuit in 1982, Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. United States. In that decision, the court held that FLSA claims may not be settled without the approval of the Department of Labor or a court. The dispute arose as a result of a U.S. DOL investigation and the employees, who did not speak English and who had not consulted with an attorney, did not know that the DOL had determined they were owed back wages.

The 5th Circuit held that the rationale of Lynn’s Food Stores did not apply to the facts before them. Instead, the court held, a private compromise of claims under the FLSA is permissible where there exists a bona fide dispute as to the hours worked or compensation due. In that context, a release of party’s rights under the FLSA is enforceable.

The potential impact of the Martin decision is expansive, particularly in light of the Third Circuit’s holding in Genesis Health Care (which currently is on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court), that an FLSA collective action is not mooted when an employer pays the full amount claimed. Now, it seems that there is at least the possibility that an employer can prevent a collective action altogether if it tenders a payment to the employee pursuant to a settlement agreement, provided the amount of wages owed is a bona fide issue of dispute and that the employee is represented by counsel.

This is particularly important when an employer receives a demand letter from an employee’s lawyer, threatening suit unless the employer agrees to pay the employee an amount of allegedly unpaid wages. Previously, the employer could (and often times would) pay the employee at least some portion of the demand and the parties would memorialize their agreement in writing. The employer would then keep its proverbial fingers crossed in the hopes that the employee would not file a lawsuit seeking the remaining amount of claimed wages. If, however, the employee did later sue, the employer would not have had much hope of having the suit dismissed due to the settlement agreement. In other words, the Martin decision, at least potentially, helps to remove one way in which employees (and employees’ lawyers) use the courts as a way to exact legal extortion to receive as much money as they want to claim they are owed.

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