National Labor Relations Board

NLRB Holds That NLRA Prohibits Class Action Waivers in Mandatory Arbitration Agreements

January 26, 2012

By Erin S. Torcello

Arbitration agreements are a common tool that employers use to manage EEO and wage/hour litigation risk.  Those agreements often include a provision that an employee who wishes to submit an employment-related claim to arbitration may do so only on behalf of himself or herself, and may not do so as part of a class or collective action.  On January 3, 2012, Member Becker's last day on the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB"), Members Becker and Pearce dealt a blow to employers seeking to create or expand arbitration agreements that employees are required to sign as a condition of employment.  In D.R. Horton, Inc., the NLRB held that mandatory arbitration agreements that include a class action waiver are unlawful under the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA").

In D.R. Horton, Inc., the employer (a home builder with operations in more than 20 states) instituted a corporate-wide policy that required new and current employees, as a condition of employment, to sign an arbitration agreement.  The agreement required all disputes arising from each employee's employment to be resolved by an arbitrator, rather than in a judicial forum.  The agreement further provided that the arbitrator had no authority to consolidate the claims of other employees, to hear any class or collective action, or to award relief to a class or group of employees.

The charging party, Michael Cuda, was a superintendent with the home building company.  Cuda's attorney notified the company that his firm represented Cuda and a nationwide class of similarly situated employees.  He asserted that the company was misclassifying the superintendents as exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") and gave notice that he intended to initiate an arbitration proceeding on behalf of the class of superintendents.  The company responded that such a collective action was prohibited under the arbitration agreement that Cuda and other employees signed.

Cuda then filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, alleging, among other things, that the arbitration agreement violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA as it prohibited employees from engaging in concerted activity for their mutual aid and protection.

The NLRB agreed with Cuda that the arbitration agreement violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.  The NLRB held that employees have the right to attempt to improve their working conditions through judicial, administrative, and arbitral proceedings.  The NLRB further held that employees' collective efforts to pursue rights or improve working conditions are "at the core of what Congress intended to protect" in Section 7 of the NLRA.  The Board concluded that, because the arbitration agreement at issue prohibited employees from pursuing class or collective actions in either an arbitral or judicial forum, it violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.

The company argued that a decision holding its arbitration agreement to be unlawful would conflict with the provisions of the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA") and the Supreme Court's 2011 decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion.  However, the NLRB rejected these arguments.

The FAA was enacted to prevent courts from treating arbitration agreements less favorably than other private contracts.  The NLRB reasoned that its decision was not in conflict with the FAA because it was treating the arbitration agreement no worse than any other private agreement.  The NLRB stated that it would have reached the same conclusion had the agreement not mentioned arbitration, but required employees to pursue only individual claims -- rather than collective claims -- in a judicial or other type of forum.

In AT&T Mobility, a class action was brought against AT&T by a group of customers who alleged that AT&T's offer of a "free" telephone to anyone who signed up for its service was fraudulent to the extent that AT&T still charged new subscribers sales tax on the retail value of the "free" telephone.  AT&T demanded that each plaintiff's claim be submitted to individual arbitration because its arbitration agreement with its customers barred class actions.  The plaintiffs argued that such a class action waiver was unconscionable under California law.  The Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs' argument, and held that the class action waiver contained in the arbitration agreement was enforceable.  The NLRB distinguished the Supreme Court's AT&T Mobility decision, principally on the basis that the arbitration agreement at issue in that case involved customers of AT&T rather than employees, and therefore, the issue of whether the arbitration agreement violated the NLRA was not presented.

The D.R. Horton case will likely be appealed to a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and may eventually be heard by the Supreme Court.  However, in the meantime, employers looking to create or expand an arbitration agreement that employees must sign as a condition of employment should be cautious not to prohibit employees from pursuing class or collective actions in an arbitral forum.

Federal Labor Law, the Wage Theft Prevention Act, and Water Cooler Discussions

January 16, 2012

By Tyler T. Hendry

As New York employers should be aware, the first annual notice to employees required by the Wage Theft Prevention Act ("WTPA") must be distributed by February 1, 2012.  Although the requirements of the WTPA have been grabbing recent headlines, this post addresses one unavoidable by-product of the annual notice requirement -- the reality that the distribution of these annual notices is likely to lead to workplace discussions among co-workers regarding wage and salary information.  As a reminder, blanket rules -- whether formal or informal -- prohibiting employees from discussing their pay and benefits with their co-workers are unlawful under the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA").

The NLRA provides private sector employees the right to engage in protected concerted activity regarding their terms and conditions of employment.  This includes, as a general rule, employees' right to share and discuss information with their co-workers about their wages, benefits, and other working conditions.  This protection extends to both union and non-union workplaces.  Accordingly, employers may not promulgate or enforce any type of policy that prohibits such discussions.  Even a broadly-written confidentiality policy may be found to violate the NLRA if an employee could reasonably view the policy as restricting discussions with co-workers about wages and other working conditions.

Employers should review their policies to ensure that there are no explicit or implicit prohibitions on wage discussions among employees that might be found to violate the NLRA.  In addition, managers should be careful to avoid knee-jerk reactions to hearing such discussions that will inevitably arise from the distribution of the annual WTPA notice to employees.

President Obama Announces Three Recess Appointments to NLRB

January 5, 2012

By Subhash Viswanathan

On January 4, 2012, President Obama announced his intent to make three recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), restoring the quorum that the NLRB had lost a day earlier when Member Becker’s recess appointment expired. The three recess appointees are: (1) Sharon Block, a Democrat who is currently the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor; (2) Richard Griffin, a Democrat who is currently General Counsel for the International Union of Operating Engineers; and (3) Terence Flynn, a Republican who is currently Chief Counsel to NLRB Member Hayes.

With these recess appointments, the NLRB will once again have a 3-2 Democratic majority. Accordingly, employers can continue to expect NLRB decisions and rule-making efforts that are intended to bolster union organizing efforts, similar to the recent proposed rules requiring employers to post a notice of employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act and amending union representation election procedures.

Republican Senators have complained that these recess appointments bypass the Constitutionally-mandated Senate confirmation process for Presidential nominees. According to a press release issued by Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), two of the three nominees were presented to the Senate on December 15, 2011, only one day before the Senate adjourned for the year, which provided the Senate with little time to consider and review the nominations.

NLRB Postpones Effective Date of Notice-Posting Requirement

December 23, 2011

By Subhash Viswanathan

The National Labor Relations Board ("Board") announced today that it has agreed to postpone the effective date of its rule requiring employers to post a notice of employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act until April 30, 2012.  This is the second postponement of the effective date of this rule, which was initially scheduled to take effect on November 14, 2011.  After lawsuits were filed against the Board in September challenging the Board's authority to implement the rule, the Board announced in October that it was postponing the effective date of the rule to January 31, 2012.  This most recent postponement to April 30, 2012 comes at the request of the U.S. District Court Judge who recently heard oral arguments with respect to one of those lawsuits.

NLRB Adopts Final Rule Amending Representation Election Procedures

December 22, 2011

By Erin S. Torcello

As anticipated, the National Labor Relations Board ("Board") adopted a final rule amending the procedures applicable to union representation elections, just before losing its quorum when Member Becker's recess appointment expires at the end of this year.  Members Pearce and Becker approved the final rule without the endorsement of Member Hayes.  The final rule will be published in the Federal Register today (December 22, 2011), and will become effective on April 30, 2012.

The amendments to the union representation election procedures, which are summarized in a prior blog post regarding the November 30, 2011 Board resolution to proceed with the drafting of the final rule, are intended to shorten the time period between the filing of a representation petition and the election.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace filed a lawsuit on December 20, 2011 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, challenging the Board's authority to adopt the final rule, and seeking an order enjoining the Board from enforcing the final rule.  We will keep you posted on any significant developments in that litigation.

NLRB Approves Resolution to Move Forward on \"Quickie\" Election Rule

December 8, 2011

By Erin S. Torcello

On Wednesday, November 30, 2011, the three-member National Labor Relations Board ("Board") approved a resolution by a 2 to 1 vote to move forward on a narrowed version of the rule on "quickie" union representation elections proposed in June.

The resolution authorizes the Board to prepare a final rule to be published in the Federal Register containing six elements that were found in the originally proposed rule.  The goal of the scaled down proposal is to decrease the delays that Board Members Pearce and Becker have argued are impediments to unions winning representation elections.  The six elements of the final rule would eliminate pre-election litigation and appeals over a number of issues.  The six amendments to the existing representation election process are summarized below:

  • The first amendment would limit the issues that may be raised at a pre-election representation hearing only to those issues that are relevant to whether a question of representation exists that should be resolved by an election.  In other words, issues pertinent to the scope of the proposed bargaining unit, the supervisory status of certain individuals, and other issues that do not affect whether or not a representation election should be held would only be permitted to be raised after the election.
  • The second amendment would give the hearing officer at a pre-election representation hearing the discretion to determine whether or not post-hearing briefs may be filed.
  • The third amendment would eliminate the right to seek Board review of a Regional Director's pre-election rulings prior to the election, leaving only the possibility of a post-election review of any such rulings that have not been rendered moot by the election.
  • Because pre-election requests for review to the Board would be eliminated, the fourth amendment would end the practice of delaying the scheduling of a representation election for purposes of giving the Board the opportunity to rule on requests for review.
  • The fifth amendment would clarify the standard for seeking special permission to appeal to the Board.
  • The sixth amendment would give the Board full discretion to determine whether or not it will consider requests for review of a Regional Director's or Administrative Law Judge's disposition of post-election objections to the election.

These proposed amendments, while not as broad as those originally proposed in June, will nevertheless have the effect of speeding up the election process.  This will have a significant impact on the manner in which employers react to the filing of a representation petition.

At this point, the Board will draft the language of the final rule, which must then be approved by a majority of the Board.  The Board currently has a quorum of three members, but will be down to two members when Member Becker's recess appointment expires at the end of this year.  It is clear that Members Pearce and Becker will do everything they can to get the final rule drafted and approved before the Board loses its quorum.

NLRB Postpones Implementation of Notice Posting Rule

October 6, 2011

By Erin S. Torcello

Yesterday, the NLRB announced that it is postponing the implementation date of the workplace notice rule that was issued on August 30, 2011. As we previously reported, that rule requires private sector employers to post a notice advising employees of their right to join a union and of their other rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Employers subject to the rule were required to post the notice by November 14, 2011. The implementation date has now been moved back more than two months. Employers are not required to post the notice until January 31, 2012.  The NLRB’s stated reason for the extension is to “allow for enhanced education and outreach to employers, particularly those who operate small and medium sized businesses.”

NLRB Modifies Unit Determination Standard in Non-Acute Health Care Facilities

September 14, 2011

By Erin S. Torcello

In its third significant case in a matter of days, the National Labor Relations Board overruled longstanding precedent and changed the standard for determining what constitutes an appropriate unit for bargaining in non-acute health care facilities. The Board’s decision in Specialty Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center of Mobile, overrules Park Manor Care Center, a decision which stood for 20 years. In Park Manor, the NLRB applied a “pragmatic or empirical community-of-interest” standard for non-acute health care facilities, including nursing homes and rehabilitation centers, which encouraged larger bargaining units to avoid burdening health care facilities with many smaller units which could be represented by multiple unions. Larger units are also generally more difficult for unions to organize.

In Specialty Healthcare, the union petitioned to be certified as the bargaining agent for 53 CNAs. The employer argued that the group of CNAs was not an appropriate unit by themselves, and under Park Manor, the only appropriate unit was one which included all nonprofessional service and maintenance employees. The Board rejected the employer’s argument, finding that the pragmatic community-of-interest approach announced in Park Manor was obsolete, and that the traditional “community-of-interest” unit determination standard must be applied to non-acute health care facilities. Under the traditional community-of-interest standard, the Board considers whether the relevant groups of employees: 

  1. are organized into separate departments; 
  2. have distinct skills and training; 
  3. have distinct job functions and perform distinct work; 
  4. are functionally integrated; 
  5. have frequent contact with each other;
  6. are interchanged with each other; 
  7.  have distinct terms and conditions of employment; and 
  8. are separately supervised.

The Board went on to hold that if an employer asserts that a group of employees must be included in the petitioned-for a unit, the employer has the burden to show that there is an overwhelming community-of-interest that would justify enlarging the petitioned-for unit.

The implications of the decision are significant because unions will now be able to isolate particular job classifications and organize facilities on a piecemeal basis, increasing the likelihood of a successful organizing campaign and reducing the amount of resources necessary to successfully organize. The case also increases the probability that multiple units with different unions will be certified in a single facility.

Two Recent NLRB Decisions Erode Employees\' Right To Choose

September 13, 2011

By Erin S. Torcello

The National Labor Relations Board has had a busy few weeks. As we noted in late August, the NLRB approved a Final Rule requiring employers to post a notice of employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act. The Board also issued two significant decisions which will help protect unions from challenges to their majority status.

The first case, Lamons Gasket Co., overturns Dana Corp., a 2007 decision holding that when an employer voluntarily recognizes a union based on a showing of majority support, the employer has to post a notice of employees’ rights to petition for an election and challenge the union. Upon posting and a 30% showing, employees could then file a decertification petition within 45 days.

Chairwoman Liebman had made it clear that given the chance, Dana Corp. would be reversed. The opportunity presented itself in Lamons Gasket, where a Board majority simply overruled Dana Corp. Accordingly, the majority status of a union recognized voluntary by an employer may not be challenged by employees for a “reasonable period of time.” The Board defined a “reasonable period of time,” by adopting the definition used in Lee Lumber & Building Material Corp.; not less than six months, but no more than one year.

At the same time it decided Lamons Gasket, the Board decided UGL-UNICCO Service Company, which addresses whether an incumbent union should enjoy a period of time insulated from challenge to its majority status where there has been a change in employers due to a merger or acquisition. A long line of Board cases have gone back and forth on this issue.
In general, where there is a change in a unionized corporate entity due to a merger or acquisition, a successor employer that hires a majority of the bargaining unit employees must recognize and bargain with the incumbent union. However, the successor employer has no obligation to adopt the predecessor’s collective bargaining agreement, and may unilaterally set its own initial terms and conditions of employment while bargaining.

Moreover, ever since the NLRB’s decision in MV Transportation, an incumbent union enjoyed only a rebuttable presumption of majority status. The union was presumed to have maintained support of a majority of the bargaining unit employees. However, upon a showing that the union had lost such support, an employer could unilaterally withdraw recognition or a petition for election could be filed by employees or a rival union.

UGL-UNICCO Service overrules MV Transportation, and holds that following a change in corporate entity, an incumbent union’s majority support may not be challenged at all for a “reasonable period of time.” The Board went on to hold that a “reasonable period of time” depends on whether the successor unilaterally sets initial terms and conditions of employment. If the successor adopts the collective bargaining agreement in effect between the predecessor employer and incumbent union, the union may not be challenged for six months, beginning from the time of the first bargaining session. Where, however, the successor unilaterally sets its own initial terms and conditions of employment, the reasonable period of time will be a minimum of six months and a maximum of one year.

Board ALJ Finds Firings Based on Facebook Messages Violated NLRA

September 8, 2011

By Subhash Viswanathan

In an earlier post, we reported that the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint in a case involving the discharge of several employees for posting Facebook messages related to a co-worker’s criticism of their work performance. The case subsequently went to trial before an Administrative Law Judge. On September 2, the ALJ issued an opinion finding that the firings violated the NLRA by interfering with the employees’ right to engage in “concerted activity for the purpose of … mutual aid or protection.”

The Facebook postings occurred after one of the discharged employees learned that a co-worker had complained about the job performance of several employees and had expressed her intent to take the complaints to management. The employee who learned of the criticism posted a message on her Facebook page soliciting comments from other employees about the complaining co-worker’s criticism, and used the co-worker’s name. Predictably, several employees responded expressing various negative opinions about the criticism, the complaining co-worker, and the difficulty of various aspects of their jobs. None of the employees made the posts during work time, and none of them used a work computer. The employer’s Executive Director subsequently met with the five employees and fired all of them for harassment and bullying in violation of the employer’s anti-harassment policy.

The main issue in the case was whether the conduct in which the employees had engaged was protected concerted activity within the meaning of the NLRA. Relying on analogous NLRB precedent, the ALJ noted that expressions related to defense of job performance are protected activity. In response to the employer’s argument that the activity was not “concerted” because it was individualized, the ALJ concluded that the activity was concerted because the employees’ Facebook messages were the first step toward group action to defend themselves against accusations they could reasonably believe would be brought to management. The opinion states that: “Employees have a protected right to discuss matters affecting their employment amongst themselves. Explicit or implicit criticism by a co-worker of the manner in which they are performing their jobs is a subject about which employee discussion is protected by Section 7. That is particularly true in this case, where at least some of the discriminatees had an expectation that [the complaining co-worker] might take her criticisms to management.”

Finally, the ALJ rejected the employer’s argument that it was merely enforcing its anti-harassment policy. The Judge concluded that the policy, which prohibited harassment based on protected characteristics, was not violated because there was no evidence the complaining co-worker was harassed, and no evidence she was harassed based on one of the protected characteristics listed in the policy.

NLRB Issues Final Rule Requiring Employers To Post Unionization Rights Notice

August 29, 2011

By Erin S. Torcello

In December 2010, we posted on the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) proposed rule that would require private sector employers to post a notice advising employees of their right to join a union and of their other rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). On August 25, the NLRB adopted, by a 3 to 1 vote (Member Hayes dissenting) the Final Rule requiring the workplace notice. The Final Rule is scheduled for publication in the Federal Register on August 30 and will go into effect 75 days from that date, on November 14, 2011.

As we discussed in our earlier post, the notice will be an 11x17 inch poster, detailing employees’ rights under the NLRA. It also provides the NLRB’s contact information for use in the event an employee believes there has been a violation of the NLRA. The notice will have to be posted by November 14 both in hard copy at the worksite(s) and electronically on an internet or intranet site, if the employer customarily uses such electronic sites to communicate with employees about company rules and policies.

Despite the 7,000 comments received during the comment period, there were very few changes to the proposed rule. In particular, the Final Rule does not require that employers email the notices to employees or that the notices be printed in color. In a very small victory for management, the Final Rule does include language regarding an employee’s right to refrain from union activity.

The Final Rule sets forth three possible consequences for failure or refusal to post a notice. First, such failure may be grounds for an unfair labor practice charge under § 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, which prohibits employers from interfering with, restraining or coercing employees with regard to the exercise of rights granted under the NLRA. Second, failure to post the notice may extend the six-month statute of limitations period for filing an unfair labor practice charge, unless there is evidence the employee had actual or constructive notice that the conduct was unlawful. Third, where the NLRB finds a knowing and willful failure to post a notice, it may use the failure to post as evidence of unlawful motive in an unfair labor practice case. Initially, however, the NLRB has indicated that its focus will be on compliance, assuming that most employers who do not post a notice are simply unaware of the rule. In those circumstances, once the notice is posted, the case will be closed.

NLRB Regional Offices will provide employers with a notice poster at no charge, or the notice may be downloaded from the NLRB’s website. In addition, if 20% or more of an employer’s workers are not proficient in English, a translated version must be posted. Translated versions will also be available from the NLRB.

NLRB Addresses Additional Employee Social Media Cases

August 1, 2011

By Terry O'Neil

In an earlier post, we discussed how the NLRB is handling social media cases. Three recent cases addressed by the Board’s Division of Advice further illuminate the Agency’s view of cases involving discipline of employees for using social media to discuss matters related to their employment. In all three cases the Division of Advice concluded that complaints should not be issued because the employees did not engage in “concerted activity” protected by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.

In one case, the Division of Advice determined that the employer lawfully terminated a bartender after she complained on her Facebook page that she had gone five years without a raise and was not able to share in the tips waitresses were receiving. According to the Advice memorandum, she further stated that she hoped her employer’s customers would “choke on glass after they drove home drunk.”

The Division of Advice noted that the test for concerted activity is whether the activity is “engaged in with or on the authority of other employees.” In addition, activity may be deemed concerted when it is the “logical outgrowth of concerns expressed by the employees collectively.” In this case, however, there was no evidence of concerted activity because the posting involved a discussion between the bartender and a non-employee, and there had been no employee meetings over the issues of tipping and raises. Nor did the Facebook communication grow out of any prior communication between employees at the establishment.

In another Advice Memorandum, the Division of Advice concluded that a non-profit residential home lawfully terminated an employee who posted several comments on her Facebook Wall about her work and her patients. According to the Advice memorandum, the employee commented that it was “spooky” working at night in a “mental institution” and that she was unsure if a resident was hearing voices. The Division of Advice found no concerted activity in the postings because they were made solely to non-employees. Moreover, they did not involve any terms and conditions of employment. Rather, the employee was merely communicating to non-employees about what was occurring at work.

Finally, the Division of Advice also issued a Memorandum in a case involving Wal-Mart. According to the memorandum, the employee posted the comment “Wuck Falmart” on her Facebook page. She also commented about “tyranny” in the store, including complaints about an Assistant Manager. Several co-workers responded to the complaints. For example, one thought the comments were humorous and another could not understand why the employee was so “wound up.” The employee received a one day suspension for the posting. The Division of Advice recommended the Board not issue a complaint because the employee was only airing an individual gripe as opposed to a complaint on behalf of others. Because the comments were limited to one person’s issues, there was no group action that could be considered protected concerted activity.

These cases stand in contrast to two cases we reported on earlier where complaints were issued. In those cases, the employees posted critical comments about working conditions, and the complaints involved communication with other employees who shared or supported the substance of the comments.