National Labor Relations Board

Third Circuit Court of Appeals Holds That Craig Becker's Recess Appointment to NLRB Was Unconstitutional

May 18, 2013

By Subhash Viswanathan

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, in NLRB v. New Vista Nursing and Rehabilitation, LLC, held on May 16 that the March 27, 2010 recess appointment of former National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") member Craig Becker was unconstitutional.  The Third Circuit is the second appeals court to weigh in on the validity of President Obama's recess appointments to the NLRB, but is the first to specifically address the validity of Craig Becker's appointment.  The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held, on January 25, 2013, that the January 2012 recess appointments of Sharon Block, Terence Flynn, and Richard Griffin were unconstitutional.

In the New Vista case, a three-member panel of the NLRB, which included Craig Becker, Wilma Liebman, and Brian Hayes, issued a decision and order in August 2011 requiring New Vista to bargain with the union that had won an election to represent a bargaining unit of New Vista's licensed practical nurses ("LPNs").  New Vista had previously argued unsuccessfully that its LPNs were supervisors who were not entitled to unionize.

In analyzing the issue of whether Craig Becker's recess appointment on March 27, 2010 was unconstitutional, the Third Circuit considered three potential interpretations of the word "recess" in the Recess Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution:  (1) intersession breaks (breaks between sessions of the Senate); (2) intersession breaks and intrasession breaks (breaks during a session of the Senate) that last a non-negligible period of time (historically considered to be at least 10 days); or (3) any period of time when the Senate is not open to conduct business, and therefore cannot act upon nominations.  The Third Circuit determined that the word "recess" applies only to intersession breaks.  Accordingly, Craig Becker's appointment was held to be invalid at its inception because he was appointed during a two-week intrasession recess in March 2010.  The Third Circuit vacated the NLRB's decision and order because the panel that issued the decision and order did not have three validly appointed members.

The Third Circuit's decision could have far-reaching consequences that go beyond the D.C. Circuit's Noel Canning decision.  The D.C. Circuit's Noel Canning decision called into question the validity of every decision issued by the NLRB from January 4, 2012 to the present because the NLRB lacked a quorum of three validly appointed members during that entire period of time.  The Third Circuit's decision now also calls into question the validity of every NLRB decision from March 27, 2010 to the present that was issued by a three-member panel on which Craig Becker was a participant.

The Supreme Court may soon take up the issue of the validity of President Obama's recess appointments to the NLRB.  On April 25, the NLRB filed a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court from the D.C. Circuit's Noel Canning decision.  In light of the fact that the Third Circuit's decision addressed the issue in a slightly different context from the D.C. Circuit's decision, and in light of the additional NLRB decisions that could be impacted by the Third Circuit's decision, it is expected that the NLRB will file a petition for certiorari asking the Supreme Court to review the Third Circuit's decision as well.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Holds That NLRB Notice Posting Rule Is Invalid

May 8, 2013

By Subhash Viswanathan

On May 7, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that the rule promulgated by the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") requiring employers to post a notice of employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") is invalid.  The D.C. Circuit had previously granted an injunction on April 17, 2012 precluding the NLRB from implementing its notice posting rule.

The appeal to the D.C. Circuit came after the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a decision in the lawsuit filed by the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Right to Work Legal Defense and Education Fund.  In that lower court decision, the District Court held that the NLRB had the authority to require employers to post the notice, but did not have the authority to determine that failure to post the notice would be an unfair labor practice and did not have the authority to permit tolling of the six-month statute of limitations for unfair labor practice charges if an employer fails to post the notice.

The D.C. Circuit held that all three of the mechanisms for enforcing the NLRB's posting requirement were invalid, which rendered the entire rule invalid.  The three enforcement mechanisms set forth in the rule were:  (1) failure to post the notice would be an unfair labor practice; (2) failure to post the notice could be used as evidence of anti-union animus in unfair labor practice cases in which the employer's motive is at issue; and (3) failure to post the notice could result in tolling of the six-month statute of limitations for unfair labor practice charges.

The D.C. Circuit found that the first two enforcement mechanisms constituted violations of an employer's free speech rights under Section 8(c) of the NLRA.  Section 8(c) of the NLRA provides that "the expressing of any views, argument, or opinion, or the dissemination thereof . . . shall not constitute or be evidence of an unfair labor practice . . . if such expression contains no threat of reprisal or force or promise of benefit."  The D.C. Circuit analyzed this provision in the context of Supreme Court decisions interpreting the First Amendment, and concluded that Section 8(c) not only protects an employer's right to express its views regarding unionism in a non-coercive manner, but also protects an employer from being compelled by the NLRB to disseminate information about unionism that it does not wish to disseminate.  The D.C. Circuit also found that the third enforcement mechanism -- the tolling of the six-month statute of limitations -- constituted an impermissible amendment to the statute of limitations that Congress expressly set forth in the NLRA.

There is still an appeal pending in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on the same issue of whether the NLRB's notice posting rule is invalid.  That appeal arose out of a decision rendered by the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, holding that the NLRB did not have the authority under the NLRA to promulgate the rule.

Second Circuit Upholds Employer's Refusal to Reinstate Home Care Workers Who Struck After Stating They Would Report to Work

March 7, 2013

By David E. Prager

Citing “unprotected, indefensible conduct” that “created a reasonably foreseeable danger” to patients, the Second Circuit, in NLRB v. Special Touch Home Care Services, Inc., stung the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) by upholding a home care employer’s refusal to reinstate strikers who “misled the employer” by falsely advising that they intended to report to work.

In 2003, when 1199 SEIU announced a three-day strike -- after giving 10 days advance notice required for health care institutions -- the employer lawfully polled its home health aides as to whether they intended to report to work as usual at the homes of patients they were assigned to assist.  While the employees were under no obligation to answer, most of them did respond, and the employer made arrangements to cover those who said they would not report to work, in order to meet the employer’s duty to its patients.

However, 48 home health aides who advised the employer that they intended to report to work nevertheless did not do so.  The employer argued that this conduct was “unprotected,” because, by misleading the employer, the aides failed to take “reasonable precautions” to avoid a risk of injury to the homebound (typically frail and elderly) patients whom the aides were assigned to assist.  Because the employer had no notice that these 48 employees would not report to work -- and none of them called in to say so -- the employer had to struggle to find coverage belatedly, and could not cover all of the patients, many of whom suffer from conditions like Alzheimer’s, strokes, Parkinson’s disease, and diminished mobility.

Seventy-five strikers who told the employer they would be out, or who called in prior to their shift, were reinstated to their positions when the three-day strike ended.  However, the 48 who misrepresented that they would report to work were not immediately reinstated (the employer instead placed them on a list for future openings).

The NLRB held that both groups of strikers were protected, reasoning that the 10-day advance-notice for strikes at health care entities was the only pre-strike notice required.  However, the Second Circuit rejected the NLRB’s view, holding that an otherwise lawful striker becomes unprotected if he “cease[s] work without taking reasonable precautions” to shield employers (or here, patients) from “foreseeable imminent danger due to sudden cessation of work.”  This conduct was regarded as unprotected under a line of industrial cases where strikers left their workstations in conditions that were potentially perilous to the public or the employer.  Here, by misleading the employer as to their intention to report to work, the 48 home health aides left the employer unable to protect seriously ill patients, thereby placing them in “imminent danger,” and rendering their strike activity “unprotected.”

NLRB Finds Non-Union Employer's Policies Unlawful

February 4, 2013

On January 25, 2013, the same day that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the recess appointments of Richard Griffin and Sharon Block were unconstitutional, National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") Members Griffin, Block, and Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce held, in DirectTV U.S. DirecTV Holdings, LLC, that several seemingly neutral and reasonable employer policies promulgated in a non-union setting unlawfully restricted protected activity in violation of the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA").

The first policy, contained in the employee handbook, instructed employees in part:  "Do not contact the media."  The NLRB found this portion of the policy to be overly broad and unlawful because employee communication with newspaper reporters about labor disputes is protected activity under the NLRA, and the NLRB believed that employees would reasonably construe the rule to prohibit such protected communication.

The second policy, posted on the employer's intranet, provided in part:  "Employees should not contact or comment to any media about the company unless pre-authorized by Public Relations."  The NLRB determined that this rule was overly broad and unlawful for the same reason as the first policy.  The NLRB further held that "any rule that requires employees to secure permission from their employer as a precondition to engaging in protected concerted activity on an employee's free time and in non-work areas is unlawful."

The third policy, contained in the employee handbook, provided in part:  "If law enforcement wants to interview or obtain information regarding a DIRECTV employee . . . the employee should contact the security department in El Segundo, Calif., who will handle contact with law enforcement agencies and any needed coordination with DIRECTV departments."  The NLRB interpreted the term "law enforcement" to include not only the police and representatives of other criminal law enforcement agencies, but also NLRB agents.  Accordingly, the NLRB concluded that this rule was unlawful because employees would reasonably believe that they were required to contact the employer's security department before cooperating with an NLRB investigation.

The fourth policy, contained in the employee handbook, instructed employees in part:  "Never discuss details about your job, company business or work projects with anyone outside the company" and "Never give out information about customers or DIRECTV employees."  The rule included "employee records" as a category of confidential information that could not be discussed or disclosed.  The NLRB found this rule to be unlawful because employees would reasonably understand the rule to restrict discussion of their wages and other terms and conditions of employment.  The NLRB also held that the rule did not exempt protected communications with third parties such as union representatives, NLRB agents, or other government agencies investigating workplace matters.

The fifth policy, posted on the employer's intranet, provided in part:  "Employees may not blog, enter chat rooms, post messages on public websites or otherwise disclose company information that is not already disclosed as a public record."  The NLRB found this rule to be unlawful, because it determined that employees would reasonably interpret "company information" to include information regarding their wages, discipline, performance ratings, and other terms and conditions of employment.

This decision demonstrates that the NLRB is determined to continue its focus on protected activity in non-union settings, and to strike down workplace policies and rules that it believes restrict such protected activity.  In light of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals' recent decision invalidating the recess appointments of Members Griffin and Block, it is not clear whether this decision will have any precedential effect.  Nevertheless, employers should carefully examine their own policies to determine whether any revisions or clarifications are necessary before those policies are challenged.

Federal Appeals Court Holds That President Obama's January 4, 2012 Recess Appointments to the NLRB Were Unconstitutional

January 24, 2013

By Subhash Viswanathan

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held today, in Noel Canning v. NLRB, that President Obama's recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") on January 4, 2012 were unconstitutional because the Senate was not actually in "recess" at the time of the appointments.  At least for now (pending a likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court), this holding essentially means that every decision issued by the NLRB from January 4, 2012 to the present is invalid because the NLRB lacked a valid quorum of three members during this entire time.  This holding also means that the NLRB currently has only one properly appointed member (Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce), and therefore lacks authority to issue any decisions or take any action going forward.

On January 4, 2012, President Obama appointed three members of the NLRB:  (1) Sharon Block, who was appointed to fill a vacancy that had arisen on January 3, 2012; (2) Terence Flynn, who was appointed to fill a vacancy that had arisen on August 27, 2010; and (3) Richard Griffin, who was appointed to fill a vacancy that had arisen on August 27, 2011.  At the time of the purported recess appointments, the Senate was operating pursuant to a unanimous consent agreement, which provided that the Senate would meet in pro forma sessions every three business days from December 20, 2011 through January 23, 2012.  During its January 3, 2012 pro forma session, the Senate acted to convene the second session of the 112th Congress and to fulfill its duty under the Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides that "the Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day."

In general, the U.S. Constitution requires that members of the NLRB (as officers of the United States) must be nominated by the President and appointed "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate."  However, the Recess Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution permits the President to "fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session."

At the time President Obama appointed Members Block, Flynn, and Griffin, Republican Senators complained that the appointments bypassed the Constitutionally mandated Senate confirmation process for Presidential nominees.  In Noel Canning, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously agreed that the appointments were unconstitutional.

The Court initially determined that the term "the Recess" in the Recess Appointments Clause applies only to recesses that occur in between sessions of Congress -- not to breaks in activity that occur during a session of Congress.  The NLRB conceded during oral argument that the appointments were not made during the intersession recess; instead, they were made on January 4, 2012, one day after Congress began a new session on January 3, 2012.

The Court also found it significant that the Recess Appointments Clause only permits the President to fill vacancies "that may happen during the Recess of the Senate."  The Court interpreted this provision to mean that the vacancy actually must arise during the Senate's intersession recess in order for the President to have the authority to fill a vacancy without going through the Senate confirmation process.  The Court determined that none of the three vacancies that President Obama sought to fill on January 4, 2012 arose "during the Recess of the Senate," and found that the appointments were unconstitutional for this reason as well.

There is no doubt that this decision will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  We will provide updates on this blog as they become available.

NLRB Overturns Longstanding Precedent Protecting Witness Statements From Disclosure

January 22, 2013

By Tyler T. Hendry

For nearly 35 years, employers in pre-arbitration discovery with a union have not been required to disclose witness statements obtained during internal workplace investigations.  However, consistent with its unabashedly pro-union year-end theme of overturning longstanding precedent, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or "Board") in American Baptist Homes of the West, d/b/a Piedmont Gardens abandoned this bright-line rule in favor of a fact-specific balancing test.  The balancing test will be applied to all information requests made after December 15, 2012.

Under Section 8(a)(5) of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), an employer must furnish a union with relevant information necessary to the union’s performance of its duties, including for grievance or arbitration purposes.  Under a rule established in its 1978 Anheuser-Busch decision, the Board had consistently applied a blanket exemption from disclosure for witness statements obtained during internal investigations of employee misconduct, reasoning that such an exemption was necessary to avoid coercion and intimidation and to encourage cooperation in internal investigations.

Finding its logic “flawed,” the Board in Piedmont Gardens explicitly rejected the Anheuser-Busch rule.  In its place, the Board held that the production of witness statements should be subject to the same standard as other union information requests and that any attempts to withhold disclosure should be analyzed using the test developed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Detroit Edison Co. v. NLRB.  Under this test, where requested witness statements may contain relevant information, an employer may refuse to produce them only if it can show that a legitimate and substantial confidentiality interest outweighs the union’s need for the information.  Additionally, in order to assert a valid confidentiality defense, an employer must raise its concerns to the union in a “timely manner” and offer an accommodation regarding the information requested before refusing to disclose the statement.

Essentially, a longstanding bright-line rule has been replaced with a test that will force employers to make a case-by-case prediction of how the Board will apply a subjective balancing of interests.  This unclear standard is almost certain to extend the grievance process as parties engage in lengthy proceedings to resolve confidentiality claims.  Lone dissenting member Brian Hayes expressed these very concerns, and he also noted that the production of witness statements is inconsistent with existing guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding confidentiality in connection with an investigation of an employee’s harassment complaint.

When this decision is combined with the NLRB’s Banner Health decision (previously reported here), which found that an employer’s rule requiring confidentiality during an internal investigation was an unfair labor practice, the effect is a major shift in the law that impedes an employer’s ability to conduct effective and meaningful internal investigations.  In light of these decisions, employers should reassess their current investigatory practices, including whether to continue to produce witness statements, and if so, how best to protect employees from legitimate confidentiality concerns regarding the disclosure of those statements.

The NLRB Requires Employers to Bargain Over Discretionary Discipline Prior to First Contract

January 8, 2013

By Kristen E. Smith

The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) continues to issue rule-changing decisions that create troubling results for employers.  We recently reported, for example, on the NLRB’s reversal of decades-old precedent when it ruled that a dues checkoff provision survives the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement.  Two days after issuing that decision, the NLRB issued a decision in Alan Ritchey, Inc., holding that an employer must bargain with a union under certain circumstances prior to imposing discretionary discipline on an employee who is represented by a union.

This new rule will apply only in the absence of a binding agreement between the employer and the union to address discipline, such as a grievance-arbitration procedure.  Therefore, as the NLRB explained, this obligation to bargain over employee discipline will typically arise only after a union is newly certified, but before the parties have agreed to a first contract.

In Alan Ritchey, Inc., after the union was certified and while negotiations were being conducted for a first contract, the employer continued to rely on its pre-existing five-step progressive disciplinary system set forth in its employee handbook to discipline several employees for absenteeism, insubordination, threatening behavior, and failure to meet efficiency standards.  Pursuant to the handbook, the employer reserved the right to exercise discretion in the enforcement of policies, and the employer admittedly exercised this discretion in setting the levels of discipline with regard to the employees in this case.  For example, when imposing discipline for failing to meet performance standards, three employees were treated leniently because of extenuating circumstances -- one employee’s husband died, another worked in a low volume area, and another was unable to work consecutive days in the same position.

The Union filed unfair labor practice charges to challenge these disciplinary actions, taking the position that it should have first been notified and given an opportunity to bargain.  The NLRB agreed.  It held that even though the employer’s existing discipline system represents the status quo that can and must be continued during bargaining for a first contract, the employer was not privileged to exercise any discretion with regard to that discipline system without negotiating with the union.  Rather, the employer was required to provide the union with notice and an opportunity to bargain each time it seeks to exercise any discretion with regard to employee discipline.  Recognizing that it had never articulated this requirement before, the NLRB opted to apply the rule only prospectively.

The NLRB set forth a few limiting principles in laying out this rule:

  • First, the employer will only be required to provide the union with notice and an opportunity to bargain prior to implementing the discipline where it seeks to impose a suspension, demotion, or discharge.  For lesser forms of discipline, such as warnings and counselings, there is still a bargaining obligation, but the employer can delay providing the notice and opportunity to bargain until after the implementation of the discipline.
  • Second, where there is an obligation to provide pre-implementation notice and opportunity to bargain, the employer need not bargain to agreement or impasse at this stage.  The employer need only provide sufficient notice, and provide responses to union information requests, if any.  If the parties cannot reach an agreement, the discipline can be imposed, and the bargaining obligation continues after imposition (albeit with the possibility that the discipline may have to be rescinded or altered).
  • Third, no prior notice is required where “exigent circumstances” exist.  The NLRB defines this as a reasonable, good faith belief that “the employee’s continued presence on the job presents a serious, imminent danger to the employer’s business or personnel.”  This includes situations where the employer believes the employee is engaging in unlawful conduct, is posing a significant risk of imposing legal liability on the employer, or threatens safety, health, or security inside or outside the workplace.

In its decision, the NLRB expressed its view that this new bargaining obligation will not “unduly burden” employers.  It is difficult to agree with this assessment.  This new obligation presents a significant impediment to an employer's ability to manage its workforce while bargaining for an initial contract.  Although the employer need not complete bargaining regarding the discipline before imposing the proposed discipline, the obligation to provide meaningful notice and to respond to union information requests prior to imposing the proposed discipline will certainly create significant delays in the disciplinary process.

The NLRB Reverses 50 Year-Old Precedent and Holds That Dues Checkoff Provisions Survive the Expiration of a Collective Bargaining Agreement

December 20, 2012

By Subhash Viswanathan

The National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") recently re-examined the issue of whether an employer's obligation to check off union dues from employees' wages terminates upon the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement that contains a dues checkoff provision.  This issue was seemingly resolved more than 50 years ago, in the NLRB's Bethlehem Steel decision.  However, on December 12, 2012, in its WKYC-TV, Inc. decision, the NLRB reversed its 50 year-old precedent and held that an employer's obligation to check off union dues continues after the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement that establishes such an arrangement.

In its 1962 Bethlehem Steel decision, the NLRB considered the issue of whether the employer had violated its obligation to negotiate in good faith by unilaterally refusing to honor the union security clause and the union dues checkoff provisions contained in an expired collective bargaining agreement.  Although the NLRB found that both union security and dues checkoff provisions are mandatory subjects of bargaining, the NLRB held in Bethlehem Steel that the employer did not violate the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") by unilaterally refusing to honor the union security clause and discontinuing union dues deductions from employees' pay checks.  The NLRB determined that the language of Section 8(a)(3) of the NLRA, which permits employers and unions to make an "agreement" to require union membership as a condition of employment, means that parties cannot enforce a union security provision after the collective bargaining agreement containing such a provision has expired.  The NLRB further reasoned that dues checkoff provisions are intended to implement union security clauses, and that an employer's obligation to continue deducting union dues from employees' pay checks ceases upon the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement.

According to the three NLRB members who comprised the majority in the WKYC-TV decision, the reasoning contained in the Bethlehem Steel decision is flawed.  The three-member majority disagreed with the premise that dues checkoff provisions are intended to implement union security clauses, and stated that "union-security and dues-checkoff arrangements can, and often do, exist independently of one another."  The three-member majority also found that employees cannot be required to authorize union dues deductions as a condition of employment even if the collective bargaining agreement contains a union security clause that requires them to be a member of the union.  Although employees generally choose to sign authorizations allowing the dues deductions as a matter of convenience, employees retain the option of transmitting their union dues directly to the union instead of consenting to automatic deductions.  The three-member majority observed that employees who sign dues checkoff authorizations are free to revoke those authorizations upon the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement if they no longer wish to continue those automatic deductions.

For these reasons, the three-member majority reversed the Bethlehem Steel decision and held that employers are required to honor dues checkoff provisions in an expired collective bargaining agreement until the parties have reached a new agreement or until a valid impasse has been reached that permits unilateral action by the employer.  This new rule will only be applied prospectively, and will not be applied to any pending cases.

Not surprisingly, Member Hayes wrote a strong dissenting opinion.  Member Hayes found no adequate justification for the NLRB to abandon more than 50 years of precedent.  Member Hayes stated that a union security clause operates as a powerful inducement for employees to authorize union dues deductions, and "it is unreasonable to think that employees generally would wish to continue having dues deducted from their pay once their employment no longer depends on it."  Member Hayes also responded to the majority's view that employees can simply revoke their authorizations, stating that "it is unlikely that employees will recall the revocation language in their authorizations, and less likely still that they will understand that their obligation to pay dues as a condition of employment terminated as a matter of law once the contract expired."  Member Hayes also recognized that an employer's ability to cease collecting union dues from employees upon the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement is "a legitimate economic weapon in bargaining for a successor agreement" and accused the three-member majority of deliberately stripping employers of this weapon to provide more leverage to unions in negotiating for successor agreements.

It is not clear at this point whether the NLRB's WKYC-TV decision will be appealed.

NLRB Provides Guidance Regarding Its Position On Employment-At-Will Policies

November 9, 2012

By Kristen E. Smith

Earlier this year, many employers were left scratching their heads after a National Labor Relations Board Administrative Law Judge ruled, in American Red Cross Arizona Blood Services Region, that an employer’s handbook acknowledgment, requiring employees to affirm the at-will nature of their employment, violated the National Labor Relations Act.  The language that was found to be unlawful in Red Cross stated:

I further agree that the at-will employment relationship cannot be amended, modified or altered in any way.

The ALJ reasoned that this language required employees to waive their Section 7 rights to engage in protected concerted activity, because by agreeing that their at-will status could never change, they were essentially foregoing their right to make efforts or engage in conduct that could result in union representation and in a collective bargaining agreement.  This waiver, according to the ALJ, would have a chilling effect on employees’ rights, and was therefore unlawful.

The confusion and concern among employers continued, as the Board continued to file and process complaints against employers for employment-at-will policies that appeared to contain the most routine at-will language.  For example, in late February, another Board complaint challenged the following language:

I acknowledge that no oral or written statements or representations regarding my employment can alter my at-will employment status, except for a written statement signed by me and either [the Company’s] Executive Vice-President/Chief Operating Officer or [the Company’s] President.

The complaint challenging this language was settled before the Board issued a decision, providing employers no guidance as to whether it was time to revise their handbooks.  Thankfully, the Board has now provided some further guidance, and it appears they have tempered their position.  This “treat,” issued on Halloween, came in the form of two Advice Memoranda (Case 32-CA-086799 and Case 28-CA-084365) issued by the Board’s Division of Advice taking the position that language similar to that above is lawful.  For example, the following language was found acceptable:

No manager, supervisor, or employee of [the Company] has any authority to enter into an agreement for employment for any specified period of time or to make an agreement for employment other than at-will.  Only the president of the Company has the authority to make any such agreement and then only in writing.

The memorandum explains that this language is lawful because it is not as absolute as the language in the Red Cross case.  It explicitly permits the president to enter into written employment agreements, thus providing for the possibility of potential modification of the at-will relationship through a collective bargaining agreement.  Additionally, the language is not written in a way that requires employees to waive their rights.

For now, employers should consider reviewing the at-will language in their employee handbooks.  Language that simply describes the at-will status of employees, and states that it can only be altered in writing by an executive should not cause concern for now.  However, if the at-will language is written in more absolute terms, providing that the at-will relationship can never be changed under any circumstances, it may be time to revise that policy.  However, as warned by the Board’s General Counsel at the close of both Advice Memoranda, “the law in this area remains unsettled.”  We will continue to provide updates on this blog as this issue develops.

NLRB Holds That Employer Committed an Unfair Labor Practice by Failing to Respond in a Timely Manner to Union's Irrelevant Information Request

November 5, 2012

By Subhash Viswanathan

On October 23, 2012, the National Labor Relations Board held, in a 2-1 decision, that an employer has an obligation under the National Labor Relations Act to respond in a timely manner to a union information request, even if the requested information is ultimately found to be irrelevant to the union's performance of its duties as the employees' collective bargaining representative.

In IronTiger Logistics, Inc., the employer was a unionized trucking company that shared common ownership with another non-union trucking company called TruckMovers.com, Inc.  The union representing IronTiger's employees made a written request to IronTiger that principally sought information regarding the non-union truck drivers employed by TruckMovers.  The information request also sought some information relating to bargaining unit employees, such as the names of the truck drivers for each unit, their destination and mileage, and communications from customers about those units.

IronTiger did not respond to the union's information request until approximately four and a half months later -- after the union had filed an unfair labor practice charge over IronTiger's failure to provide a response to the information request.  In its response, IronTiger did not provide any of the requested information, but instead stated its belief that all of the requested information was irrelevant.

The Administrative Law Judge who presided over the unfair labor practice hearing agreed with IronTiger that the information requested by the union was irrelevant to the union's performance of its duties as the employees' collective bargaining representative.  In addition, there was no dispute regarding the adequacy of IronTiger's response explaining why the requested information was irrelevant.  However, the ALJ nevertheless held that IronTiger's failure to respond in some manner to the irrelevant information request for approximately four and a half months constituted a refusal to bargain in good faith in violation of Section 8(a)(5) of the Act.

The two-member majority of the Board agreed with the ALJ's analysis, and held that employers have an obligation under the Act to respond within a reasonable time to union information requests, regardless of whether those requests are deemed to be irrelevant.  Member Hayes wrote a dissenting opinion, in which he reasoned:  "Ultimately, requested information is either legally relevant to a union's representative duties, or it is not.  If it is not relevant, then the statutory duty to bargain in good faith is not implicated by the request or the employer's failure to respond timely to the request."

Based on the Board's IronTiger decision, employers should make sure to respond within a reasonable time in some manner to all information requests made by a union representing their employees, even if the response is just a brief explanation of the employer's position that the requested information is irrelevant.  If an employer believes that a union information request is overly broad or unduly burdensome, the employer should make a good faith effort to work with the union to narrow the scope of the request.

NLRB Holds That Employer's Discharge of Employee for Facebook Postings Was Lawful, But Finds Employer's "Courtesy" Rule Unlawful

October 3, 2012

By Colin M. Leonard

On September 28, 2012, the National Labor Relations Board handed down its first decision regarding whether an employee’s termination in connection with his postings on Facebook was unlawful.  In its decision, however, the Board dodged the more thorny aspect of the case, which was whether other Facebook postings of the employee that were openly critical of the employer were protected under the Act.

The Board concluded that the employee, a salesman at a BMW dealership, was terminated for posting pictures on Facebook of an unfortunate incident at an adjoining Land Rover dealership, which was also owned by the same employer.  The incident depicted in the employee’s photos was of a Land Rover that had been driven into a pond by a customer’s teenage son and included the caption:  “This is your car.  This is your car on drugs.”  He also wrote on his Facebook page:

This is what happens when a sales Person sitting in the front passenger seat (Former Sales Person, actually) allows a 13 year old boy to get behind the wheel of a 6000 lb. truck built and designed to pretty much drive over anything.  The kid drives over his father’s foot and into the pond in all about 4 seconds and destroys a $50,000 truck.  OOOPS!

The Board, affirming the ALJ, concluded that there was nothing protected or concerted about these posts by the employee because they did not concern any terms or conditions of employment and they were posted solely by the employee, apparently as a “lark.”

The Board did not consider whether more controversial postings by the employee on his Facebook page were protected, concerted activity under the Act.  Those postings were critical of the employer’s “Ultimate Driving Event” at the BMW dealership.  Specifically, the employee criticized the low budget food and drink offerings provided to customers -- the 8 oz. bag of chips, the $2.00 cookie plate from Sam’s Club and the hot dog cart where a customer “could attain a over cooked wiener and a stale bunn [sic],” among other criticisms.  Because the Board agreed with the ALJ that the employee had been fired exclusively for the Land Rover postings, which were clearly unprotected, the Board found it unnecessary to determine whether the employee’s other postings were protected.

However, two members of the Board (with Member Hayes dissenting) concluded that the following policy of the employer was unlawful:

Courtesy:  Courtesy is the responsibility of every employee.  Everyone is expected to be courteous, polite and friendly to our customers, vendors and suppliers, as well as to their fellow employees.  No one should be disrespectful or use profanity or any other language which injures the image or reputation of the Dealership.

Specifically, the Board found the broad prohibitions of the rule on “disrespectful” conduct and use of “language which injures the image or reputation of the Dealership” implicated protected Section 7 activities, including complaining about working conditions and seeking the support of others in improving them.  The Board noted that there was nothing else in the rule -- or the employee handbook generally -- to suggest that conduct protected by Section 7 of the Act is excluded from the Courtesy rule.  The two-member majority rejected the argument advanced by dissenting member Hayes that the words contained in the rule must not be read “in isolation,” and that the first two sentences inform employees that the rule is intended simply to promote civility in the workplace.

NLRB Administrative Law Judge Invalidates EchoStar's Social Media Policy

October 2, 2012

By Sanjeeve K. DeSoyza

Just two weeks after the National Labor Relations Board’s first decision regarding the lawfulness of an employer’s social media policy, another employer received an adverse decision on its social media policy, this time by a Board administrative law judge.  On September 20, 2012, ALJ Clifford Anderson ruled that EchoStar Technologies’ social media policy chilled employees’ Section 7 rights and thus violated Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act.

The challenged portions of the policy (i) prohibited employees from “mak[ing] disparaging or defamatory comments about EchoStar, its employees, officers, directors, vendors, customers, partners, affiliates, or our or their products/services”; and (ii) further prohibited employees’ participation in personal social media activities “with EchoStar resources and/or on Company time” without company authorization.

Applying the test set forth in Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia, the judge preliminarily found that the EchoStar policy did not explicitly restrict Section 7 activity and noted the absence of a claim that the policy was promulgated in response to union activity or that it had been applied to restrict the exercise of Section 7 rights.  He found, however, that the term “disparaging” was impermissibly overbroad and would be read by a reasonable employee to intrude on and chill the employee’s right to engage in activities protected by Section 7 of the Act.

ALJ Anderson further rejected EchoStar’s argument that a “savings clause” salvaged the rule.  The clause advised employees to contact Human Resources if they had questions regarding the handbook and further stated that if a conflict arose between an EchoStar policy and the law, the appropriate law would govern and the policy would be conformed in accordance with that law.  Noting that the clause appeared in the introductory sections of the handbook, several pages before the social media policy, the ALJ found that a general admonition to contact Human Resources does not create a “legal loop” that an employee must jump through before the rule may be challenged.  He further found that a boilerplate clause that a document’s provisions be applied and interpreted in a legally permissible manner does not save an otherwise invalid rule under the Act.  Without any analysis, the ALJ also found that the rule prohibiting employees from using personal social media with company resources and/or on company time also violated the Act.

Additionally, ALJ Anderson invalidated several other handbook policies (or portions thereof), including policies regarding “contact with the media” and “contact with government agencies," the “investigations” policy insofar as it required that employees “maintain confidentiality” during internal company investigations, and the portion of the “disciplinary actions” policy defining “insubordination” to include “undermining the Company, management or employees.”  In each instance, the ALJ found the challenged language to be overbroad and likely to induce a reasonable employee to conclude that it encompassed, and thereby prohibited, protected Section 7 activity.

Similar to the Board in Costco, ALJ Anderson appears to have closely tracked the reasoning of Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon, as set forth in Mr. Solomon's three Operations Memos issued during the past 14 months.  That said, the Board’s analysis of social media policies remains in its infancy and little specific guidance on permissible policy language is currently available.  Until further decisions and guidance are issued, employers should continue to consult with counsel in crafting their social media policies, with an eye toward (i) avoiding broad, vague prohibitions; (ii) including specific examples of prohibited conduct; and (iii) inserting appropriate disclaimers within the policy itself.