A recent determination by the United States Supreme Court serves as a reminder that dealing with strikes is a particularly dangerous activity for employers and requires careful planning and counsel at every step. In the midst of an economic strike in 1999, a Connecticut nursing home/assisted living facility made the decision to hire permanent replacements. Ten years later, the unfair labor practice case generated by hiring the replacements has finally come to a close with the United States Supreme Court refusing to hear the case, and leaving the employer with a back pay liability that could reportedly exceed $3 million. The saga of the case provides lessons on both an employer’s use of permanent replacements, and on the potential economic consequences of fighting an unfair labor practice charge.
As noted, the case began in 1999, when the employer, Church Homes, Inc., began hiring permanent replacement employees a month into a strike. Under federal labor law, an employer is permitted to hire permanent replacements for strikers involved in an economic strike. The strike was an economic strike, so permanent replacements were permitted, but what made this case different was the fact that Church Homes actively concealed its hiring of the replacements, bringing them on board without notice to the union or the strikers. It was not until several weeks later, after approximately 100 replacements had been hired, that the company revealed this fact during a mediation session. The union subsequently made an unconditional offer to return to work, but only 79 of the approximately 185 strikers were returned by the company. The company relied on its hiring of permanent replacements, as it is typically permitted to do in an economic strike situation, to deny reinstatement to the other strikers.
The union filed unfair labor practice charges against the company claiming that the employer’s hiring of permanent replacement workers was not for legitimate business reasons but rather was to punish the strikers and break the union. An Administrative Law Judge initially found merit in the charges and ruled against the employer. Church Homes appealed to the National Labor Relations Board. In a 2-1 decision the Board found in favor of Church Homes. The Board recognized the long standing right of an employer to hire permanent replacements during an economic strike and further found that the employer had no obligation to advise the union that it was hiring replacements. As a result, it concluded that the NLRB’s General Counsel had failed to carry its burden of proving that the employer acted unlawfully.
The Board’s decision was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit which, in 2006, reversed the Board’s decision. While the Court agreed that permanent replacements were appropriate in an economic strike and that there was no absolute obligation for an employer to notify a union in advance of the hiring permanent replacements, it concluded that active concealment of the hiring of replacements can support an inference of improper motive, absent proof of an affirmative legitimate reason for the secrecy. The Court remanded the case to the Board for further consideration.
On remand, the Board changed course and ruled against the employer. Finding a lack of credible evidence to support a legitimate reason for the employer’s secrecy, the Board concluded that “it would appear that the [Second Circuit] placed on the [employer] the burden of establishing a lawful motive for maintaining secrecy in the hiring of replacements.” Because the employer did not meet this burden, its failure to return the strikers to work because of the hiring of the replacements was found to be unlawful.
This second Board decision was affirmed on appeal back to the Second Circuit, which reinforced its prior conclusion that “the logical inference to be drawn from [the employer’s] secrecy, absent evidence of a legitimate purpose or credible explanation for the secrecy, was that [it] intentionally concealed its hiring of permanent replacements to remove Union members from its workforce and thereby break up the Union.” The employer subsequently sought review by the Supreme Court. Just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court announced that it would not hear the case, finally bringing this saga to a close after nearly 10 years.
There are two significant lessons to be learned from this tortuous history. While the good news is that neither the Second Circuit nor the Board found that hiring permanent replacements in secrecy automatically proves improper motive, these decisions make clear that an employer must be able to articulate and document a legitimate business reason for the secrecy as part of its decision making process. The Court and the Board noted that concern over violence could be a legitimate justification for secrecy, but there must be credible evidence that such a fear is warranted. Presumably there could be other reasons which would support secrecy. But without credible contemporaneous evidence that such concerns in fact motivated the employer to maintain secrecy, an employer who does not provide advance notice of the hiring of replacements does so at great risk.
The second lesson of the case relates to the inordinate amount of time it can take to fully litigate unfair labor practice cases under the current statutory scheme. This case, with an Administrative Law Judge decision, two NLRB proceedings and two trips to the Second Circuit before a final rejection by the Supreme Court, took nearly 10 years. Recent reports indicate that potential back pay could exceed $3 million. Significant time delays mean that employers must either be prepared to face potentially enormous back pay exposure in their efforts to vindicate their rights, or prematurely forfeit their position on the merits because that potential liability is simply too great.