The DC Circuit Court, in its August 11th decision in Rhino Northwest, LLC v NLRB has found that the NLRB’s 2011 Specialty Healthcare decision revisiting the Board’s standards for determining whether a bargaining unit a union seeks to represent is appropriate, where the employer claims in excludes other classifications of employees who share a community of interest with the petitioned for employees, is supported by the National Labor Relations Act and that the “overwhelming community of interest” standard that the Board adopted in that case is entitled to deference and should be followed.

The Specialty Healthcare Holding

The NLRB’s 2011 Specialty Healthcare decision is frequently referred to as the “micro-unit” case. In Specialty Healthcare, the Board held that for an employer to establish that a unit is not appropriate and must include other classifications, the employer must prove the petitioned for unit is “truly inappropriate” and that the additional classifications the employer contends must be included in the unit share “an overwhelming community of interest” with the petitioned for classifications.   Many saw this as a contradiction to the long standing proposition that the extent of organizing or support could not be the basis for finding a group of employees to be an appropriate unit and a results driven decision by the Obama Board, intended to allow unions to gain footholds within employers’ workforces by achieving bargaining rights for small pockets of workers.

The Facts in Rhino Rigging

In Rhino, which is a concert equipment setup company, a local of IATSE, a union representing stagehands and theatrical professions, petitioned for an election in a group of “riggers” employed by the company at a location in Washington State. The employer argued that a unit of just riggers, employees who use motors to hoist and position overhead equipment at concerts and theatrical events, was not an appropriate unit, and that the “overwhelming community of interest” standard adopted by the Board in Specialty Healthcare was inconsistent with the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or Act”) and that in any case, that the riggers shared an overwhelming community of interest with the other classifications they worked with– camera, lighting, and forklift workers – and that a unit composed only of riggers was “truly inappropriate.” The Regional Director disagreed and directed an election in the rigger unit, the union won the election, and Rhino refused to bargain, in order to test the certification and, ultimately have its arguments considered by the D.C. Circuit.

The DC Circuit’s Rhino Rigging Decision

In short, the DC Circuit rejected all of Rhino Riggings’ arguments, finding that “Because a legitimate basis exists for excluding non-riggers from the bargaining unit,” it would sustain the Board’s order, in which it held that the company was obligated to bargain with the union for the unit of riggers.

As the Court pointed out, under the Board’s unit determination case law, “two considerations determine the prima facie appropriateness of a proposed unit.”

First, the employees must be “readily identifiable as a group” based on factors such as “job classifications, departments, functions work locations [or] skills. Second, the petitioned-for employees must share a “community of interest.” The Board “weigh[s] all relevant factors on a case-by-case basis” to determine whether a set of employees are sufficiently alike to constitute an appropriate bargaining unit.

Noting that there can in many circumstances be more than one appropriate bargaining unit, the Court reaffirmed that a unit need not be the most appropriate unit, and that under the Board’s overwhelming community of interest standard, for an employer to successfully challenge a petition seeking a unit it considers “underinclusive,” it must demonstrated that the proposed unit is “truly inappropriate” because the excluded employees share an overwhelming community of interest under the standard adopted in Specialty Healthcare.

The Court rejected Rhino’s argument that the “overwhelming community of interest” standard “runs afoul of the Act,” and its contention that even under that standard, the riggers shared an overwhelming community of interest with the other classifications.

What Happens Next?

With the DC Circuit’s decision, a total of eight Circuit Courts have rejected claims that the Board exceeded its authority in Specialty Healthcare and that the standards adopted in it are not supported by the Act.

For employers that were holding out hope that the DC Circuit was going to turn the tide on Specialty Healthcare and reject or redefine the “overwhelming community of interest” standard, the Rhino decision is a setback. It is certainly possible that a Court in another circuit which has not yet passed on Specialty Healthcare could still find that the test is not supported by the Act.

That said, at this point, the most likely way that change will come will be from the Board itself, once a Republican majority is in place, which should be this year. On May 10, NLRB Chairman Miscimarra issued a dissent in Cristal USA, Inc., in which he explicitly articulated his belief that “Specialty Healthcare was wrongly decided.” He went on to note that the unit in certified in Cristal was one he did not believe was an appropriate unit, and that this was concerning to him because it “promotes instability by creating a fractured or fragmented unit.”

As the Board moves to a new Republican majority, there is every reason to believe that the holdings in Specialty Healthcare will be reexamined from the point of view articulated in the Chairman’s dissent in Cristal and other cases.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate confirmed Marvin Kaplan, a former Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission lawyer, to fill one of the two open seats on the National Labor Relations Board, moving the agency a step closer to a Republican majority. Kaplan was confirmed on a 50-48 party-line vote by the GOP-controlled Senate.

The Senate has yet to schedule a vote for President Trump’s second nominee for the Board, William Emanuel, a long time management-side labor and employment lawyer. The Senate is expected to vote for cloture on Emanuel’s nomination after the August recess. The cloture vote kicks off a 30-hour period of debate. A final confirmation vote will then be scheduled.

The delay in moving forward on Emanuel’s nomination is the result of several Democrats stalling by raising partisan concerns that Emanuel’s history as a management-side lawyer somehow creates a conflict of interest, notwithstanding their prior support of Board nominees who have had lifelong careers as attorneys for unions, and indeed in numerous other instances, attorneys who represented employers. For example, current Member Mark Gaston Peace was longtime union lawyer and the current NLRB General Counsel Richard Griffin, Jr. was the General Counsel of the International Union of the Operating Engineers and a member of the board of directors of the AFL-CIO Lawyers Coordinating Committee.

Emanuel is expected to be confirmed in September despite the delays.

As discussed in our earlier advisory, if the nomination of Emanuel is confirmed by the Senate, which seems likely as of now, the NLRB will not only have its first Republican majority in nine years, it will return to full strength at five members. As cases come before the Board for its consideration, the NLRB will likely reconsider many of the decisions of the Democratic majority Obama Board. However, as we have noted, NLRB General Counsel is expected to serve out his four year term and remain in that critical post, in which he decides in many respects, which issues are litigated and presented to the Board, through November 3, 2017.

As we noted in our earlier blog, the Board is likely to consider a number of significant legal issues once the final vacancy is filled, including the NLRB’s standards for determining whether joint employer relationships exist, the standards for evaluating whether handbooks and work rules unlawfully interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), the Board’s standards for determining what are appropriate units for collective bargaining including a review of the so-called “mircro-units” approved by the Obama Board, the status graduate students and research assistants as employees under the NLRA with the right to collective bargaining, and a host of other decisions from the past eight years that more expansively interpreted the NLRA.

Since the National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB” or the “Board”) 2015 decision in Browning-Ferris Industries, 362 NLRB No. 186, in which it adopted a new, far less stringent test for determining joint-employer status under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”),  employers have been left wondering whether they may be held to be a joint employer of temporary or contract workers that they retain through staffing and temporary agencies.

These concerns have been echoed by employers in other contexts as other agencies, such as the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) and the Equal Employment Opportunity have taken similar positions, seeking to expand the concept of joint employer with respect to statutes and regulations they enforce. Notably, both the DOL and the EEOC filed amicus briefs in support of the NLRB’s position with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering whether the NLRB exceeded its statutory authority in Browning-Ferris.

While the loosened standards for determining joint employment remain under consideration by the courts, members of Congress are now seeking to use the power of the purse strings to force the NLRB to discontinue its use of the relaxed standards it adopted in Browning-FerrisLegislation considered yesterday by House Republicans would do away with this expansion of joint employer liability and provide much needed clarity for employers on this issue.

What is the NLRB’s Browning-Ferris Standard for Finding Joint-Employer Status?

The Browning-Ferris decision expanded the definition of joint-employer to hold that if an employer, referred to as the primary employer, merely possesses, but does not exercise, the right or ability to directly or indirectly codetermine the terms and condition of employment of the employees of another employer, referred to as the secondary employer, the primary employer will be held to be the joint-employer of the secondary employer’s employees.

This holding impacts a wide range of workers, such as employees of business arrangements including the use of contractors, retention of personnel through staffing agencies and temporary employment services, and, if the “primary employer is a franchisor, personnel employed by the franchisor’s franchisees. As the Board pointed out when it decided Browning-Ferris, in its view “the current economic landscape,” which includes some 2.87 million people employed by temporary agencies, warrants a “refined” standard for assessing joint-employer status. As the majority put it: “If the current joint-employer standard is narrower than statutorily necessary, and if joint-employment arrangements are increasing, the risk is increased that the Board is failing what the Supreme Court has described as the Board’s ‘responsibility to adapt the Act to the changing patterns of industrial life.’”

While the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling in Browning-Ferris is now before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where the court has been asked to find that the NLRB’s test is not supported by the terms of the NLRA or the common law definition of employer, which is an element of the Browning-Ferris standard itself, recent activity from House Republicans may result in legislative action establishing a new, far narrower standard for determining joint-employer status.

Congress Seeks to Use the Appropriation Process to Force the Board to Discard Browning-Ferris’s Indirect Control Standard

House Republicans have introduced new language in a draft spending bill – that among other things, would set the NLRB’s appropriation for 2018 – to direct the Board to set aside what many in the business community find to be one of the most objectionable parts of Browning-Ferris.

The House Education and Workforce Committee held a hearing on Wednesday, July 12, 2017 to discuss the barriers to job and business growth created by the “indirect control” standard of joint employer liability. Small business owners and other employer representatives testified that the joint employer standard threatens their ability to expand, and encouraged the committee to introduce legislation that would define employees as those workers that the employer has direct or actual control over.

On Thursday, July 13, 2017, the House Appropriations Committee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education voted along strict party lines to approve a markup of their draft spending bill for FY 2018, which would prohibit the NLRB from using the “indirect control” standard in making joint employer determinations and would require the Board to revert to the “direct control” standard. The Appropriations Committee describes the legislation in its press release and on its website as including

two policy provisions to stop the NLRB’s harmful anti-business regulations. The provisions include: A provision that prohibits the NLRB from applying its revised “joint-employer” standard in new cases and proceedings; A provision that prevents the NLRB from exercising jurisdiction over Tribal governments.

This provision, along with the Committee’s proposal to reduce the NLRB’s budget by $25 million (from $274 million to $249 million) will face strong opposition from the Democratic minority, organized labor, unions, and employee lobbying groups. Of course at this point it is not at all clear whether in fact there will actually be a budget for the new fiscal year or, instead, Congress will again adopt a continuing resolution to keep the government running.

What Should Employers Do Now?

Employers and their representatives should of course continue to pay close attention to the budget process and other legislative action, while waiting for Congress to take action on the President’s nominees to the two vacant seats on the NLRB.   There is every reason to believe, assuming Willian Emanuel and Marvin Kaplan are confirmed and take their seats on the Board, that they, like Chairman Philip Miscimarra, who wrote a vigorous dissent in Browning-Ferris, will share the Chairman’s belief that the standard adopted in that case was incorrect and should be set aside. At this time, however, it would be nothing more than speculation to predict when the new Board majority will have an actual case before it in which these issues are present.

In the meantime, employers are advised to review the full range of their operations and personnel decisions, including their use of contingent and temporary personnel supplied by staffing and similar agencies to assess their vulnerability to such action and to determine what steps they make take to better position themselves for the challenges that are surely coming.

Equally critical, employers should carefully evaluate their relationships with suppliers, licensees, and others with which they do business to ensure that their relationships, and the agreements, both written and verbal, governing those relationships do not create additional and avoidable risks.

This post was written with assistance from Sean Winker, a 2017 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

On Tuesday night, the President announced the nomination of William Emanuel, a long time management-side labor employment lawyer, to fill the last remaining vacancy on the five-member National Labor Relations Board.

As we noted in our earlier blog, last week the President announced the nomination of Marvin Kaplan, who currently serves as counsel at the Occupational Safety and Health Commission, to fill the other vacancy on the NLRB.

If the nominations of Messrs. Emanuel and Kaplan are confirmed by the Senate, which seems likely as of now, the NLRB will not only have its first Republican majority in nine years, it will return to a full strength at five members. As cases come before the Board for its consideration, the NLRB will likely reconsider many of the decisions of the Democratic majority Obama Board.  However, as we have noted, Richard F. Griffin, Jr., who was appointed as the Board’s General Counsel, is expected to serve out his four year term and remain in that critical post, in which he decides in many respects, which issues are litigated and presented to the Board, through November 3, 2017.

The nominations of Messrs. Emanuel and Kaplan will now go before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, where they are expected to be advanced.

As discussed in our earlier advisory, the Board is likely to consider a number of significant legal issues once the vacancies are filled, including the NLRB’s test for determining whether joint employer relationships exist, the standards for evaluating whether handbooks and work rules interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), appropriate units for collective bargaining, the question of whether graduate students and research assistants are employees under the NLRA with the right to collective bargaining, and a host of other decisions from the past eight years that more expansively interpreted the NLRA.

The President earlier this week announced the nomination of Marvin Kaplan, who currently serves as counsel at the Occupational Safety and Health Commission, to serve as a Member of the National Labor Relations Board. Mr. Kaplan is a Republican and once confirmed, his taking a seat on the Board will be an important step in the move towards a more employer-friendly Republican majority that can be expected to reconsider many of the decisions of the Democratic majority Obama Board. Mr. Kaplan’s nomination is for the seat most recently held by Member Harry Johnson, and will be for a full five year term continuing into 2022.

The nomination is now before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, where it is expected to be advanced. Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee expressed his support, stating “Marvin Kaplan has the qualifications to be an effective member of the National Labor Relations Board. Once Mr. Kaplan’s nomination paperwork is received, the Senate labor committee will move promptly to consider his nomination.” It is not yet known however when that will occur.

As we reported last month, the President is also expected to nominate management side labor lawyer William Emanuel for the other vacant seat on the Board.

If President Trump’s nominees are confirmed by the Senate, the NLRB will have its first Republican majority in nine years.

As discussed in our earlier advisory, the board is likely to consider a number of significant legal issues once the vacancies are filled, including the NLRB’s test for determining whether joint employer relationships exist, the standards for evaluating whether handbooks and work rules interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), appropriate units for collective bargaining, the question of whether graduate students and research assistants are employees under the NLRA with the right to collective bargaining and a host of other decisions from the past eight years that more expansively interpreted the NLRA.

According to news reports, the Trump administration has submitted Marvin Kaplan and William Emanuel for FBI background checks, and it plans to nominate them by June to fill a pair of vacancies at the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”).

The administration hopes to have the new members confirmed by the Senate before the August recess.

Kaplan is currently counsel to the commissioner of the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. He previously served as the Republican workforce policy counsel for the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Emanuel is a shareholder at the management firm Littler Mendelson PC in Los Angeles. He has represented business groups seeking to invalidate state laws that his clients say allow unions to trespass on their property.

The five-seat board currently only has three members: Chairman Philip A. Miscimarra (R) and Members Mark Gaston Pearce (D) and Lauren McFerran (D). The vacant seats are reserved for Republicans. The Board is generally composed of three Members of the President’s party and two from the other party.

If President Trump’s nominees are confirmed by the Senate, the NLRB will have its first Republican majority in nine years.

As discussed in our earlier advisory, the board is likely to consider a number of significant legal issues once the vacancies are filled, including the NLRB’s test for determining whether joint employer relationships exist, the standards for evaluating whether handbooks and work rules interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act “(NLRA”), appropriate units for collective bargaining, the question of whether graduate students and research assistants are employees under the NLRA with the right to collective bargaining and a host of other decisions from the past eight years that more expansively interpreted the NLRA.

While this will ultimately be a welcome change to employers, for those with cases pending the current union leaning majority may still have several months to issue Obama-era type decisions.

On April 25, 2017, Dorothy Dougherty, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) and Thomas Galassi, Director of OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs, issued a Memorandum to the agency’s Regional Administrators notifying them of the withdrawal of its previous guidance, commonly referred to as the Fairfax Memorandum, permitting “workers at a worksite without a collective bargaining agreement” to designate “a person affiliated with a union or community organization to act on their behalf as a walkaround representative” during an OSHA workplace investigation.

The Lawsuit Challenging the Participation of Union Representatives in OSHA Inspections

Two days later, on April 27, 2017, the National Federation of Independent Business filed a  with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, effectively declaring victory in their lawsuit challenging the issuance of the Fairfax Memorandum as being inconsistent with and unsupported by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the regulations issued under it allowing for the limited participation of third party experts during OSHA conducted workplace safety inspections.

For readers who have been following this issue and the litigation, the withdrawal of the Fairfax Memorandum and the plaintiff’s decision to discontinue their law suit should come as no surprise. This past February, the court denied OSHA’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit challenging the Fairfax Memorandum and OSHA’s decision to allow the participation of union representatives in non-union workplaces, finding that the plaintiff had “stated a claim upon which relief can be granted,” and that “the [Fairfax Memorandum] flatly contradicts a prior legislative rule as to whether the employee representative” in such a walk-around inspection “must himself be an employee.”

OSHA and the DOL’s Decision to Withdraw the Fairfax Memorandum

Less than a week later, OSHA filed an Unopposed Motion For Extension of time to answer the complaint in the Federation’s lawsuit, explaining to the Court that “the extension of the deadline for defendants to answer is necessary to allow incoming leadership personnel at the United States Department of Labor adequate time to consider the issues.”

The Memorandum withdrawing the Fairfax Memorandum reiterates the requirements of 29 CFR 1903.8 (c) that an employee representative who accompanies an OSHA representative during a walkaround workplace inspection “shall be an employee of the employer,” and that the only exceptions in which a non-employee may participate is “where good cause is shown” and the participation of a non-employee, such as an industrial hygienist or a safety engineer” is “reasonably necessary to the conduct of an effective and thorough inspection of the workplace” in the judgment of the OSHA Compliance and Safety Health Officer conducting the examination. Notably, however, rather than actually stating that the Fairfax Memorandum was inconsistent with the provisions of the statute or the OSHA regulations, the April 25th memorandum simply refers to it as “unnecessary.”

What this Means for Employers

First and foremost, OSHA’s issuance of the April 25th memorandum makes clear that union representatives who are not the certified or recognized bargaining representative of the employees at a facility to be inspected by OSHA have no legal right to participate in such inspections.  Accordingly, it is equally clear that an employer faced with such an inspection at a facility that a union is seeking to organize should understand that the union’s representatives have no right to participate.

An important effect of the withdrawal of the Fairfax Memorandum will be to deny unions a potentially potent tool for organizing. As Judge Fitzwater described in his Memorandum and Order denying OSHA’s motion to dismiss the Federation’s lawsuit in February, unions such as the UAW in its ongoing organizing campaign at Nissan in Tennessee have come to rely upon participation in OSHA inspections as a valuable tool.

No doubt with the confirmation of Secretary Acosta, leadership of the Department of Labor will continue to review and reassess positions and actions taken during the past eight years.

Philip Miscimarra. Credit: NLRB.gov.

On April 24, 2017 President Trump designated Philip Miscimarra as Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board). The move follows the President’s late January designation of Board Member Miscimarra as Acting Chairman.

A Republican Chair

Miscimarra, a management-side labor lawyer and a Republican, was nominated to serve on the Board by then President Obama in 2013 and was confirmed by the Senate for a four year term that continues through December 16, 2017.  President Trump can nominate Chairman Miscimarra for another term if he should wish to do so. While Board Members are subject to Senate confirmation, the President may, in his discretion, designate a Member of the NLRB to serve as Chair at his pleasure.

Two Vacancies Remain On the NLRB

The Board is composed of five Members and at this time two of the seats on the Board are vacant. The vacant seats are reserved for Republicans.  The Board is generally composed of three Members of the President’s party and two from the other party.  Board Members Mark Pearce and Lauren McFerran are both Democrats.

What Is Likely To Change With a New Majority

Notably, Chairman Miscimarra, through a series of dissenting opinions taking issue with decisions of the Obama Board’s Democratic majority has offered a significant overview of issues as to which, once there is a new Republican majority on the NLRB, employers, unions and other advocates can expect the Board to likely move, as cases presenting the issues come before it for decision. These include such issues as the NLRB’s test for determining whether joint employer relationships exist, the standards for evaluating whether handbooks and work rules interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), appropriate units for collective bargaining, the question of whether graduate students and research assistants are employees under the NLRA with the right to collective bargaining and a host of other decisions from the past eight years that more expansively interpreted the NLRA.

Election Rules and Procedures

Also notable is the fact that Chairman Miscimarra was a dissenter when the Board adopted its Amended Representation Election Rules that took effect in May 2015. Those rules, often referred to as the “ambush” or ”quickie” election rules that have not only cut the time between the filing of a representation petition and a vote from an average of 40-45 days to approximately 25 days. Since the Amended Rules took effect, Mr. Miscimarra has pointed out that they have placed an undue priority on speed, compromising the rights of employees to make informed decisions when they vote and the right of employers to meaningfully communicate with employees before an election.

Because the Amended Rules were adopted under the Board’s rulemaking authority, any further revisions in the election rules must also be made either through the same lengthy process or by Congress through legislation. For the Board to do so will require a new majority that agrees that change is needed. While various sources have suggested that the new administration is considering who it will nominate for the vacant seats on the Board, only time will tell when the President will submit his nominations and the Senate will consider them.

On March 21, 2017, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the National Labor Relations Board’s former Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon served in violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 3345, et seq. (“FVRA”) when he continued in that position after President Barack Obama nominated him for a full term as General Counsel.

By a 6 to 2 vote, the Justices affirmed an August 2015 decision by the D.C. Circuit, which found that Solomon improperly served as Acting General Counsel during the almost three-year period between January 2011 and late 2013 while his nomination for confirmation as  the Board’s General Counsel languished in the Republican-controlled Senate.  Ultimately, Obama withdrew Solomon’s nomination and put forward Richard F. Griffin, Jr., who was eventually confirmed on October 29, 2013.

Background

As we explained in our prior post, the position of NLRB General Counsel is just one of approximately 1,200 senior level positions within the federal government (including Cabinet secretaries and deputies, heads of most independent agencies, and ambassadors) that may only be filled by an individual nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate (so-called “PAS” positions).  The FVRA, enacted in 1998, gives the President authority to appoint acting officers to serve in these positions until the President’s nominee completes the sometimes lengthy Senate confirmation process.

Pursuant to the FVRA, therefore, when former NLRB General Counsel Ronald Meisburg vacated that position on June 20, 2010, Obama appointed Solomon, then a 10-year agency veteran who was serving as Director of the NLRB’s Office of Representation Appeals, to become the agency’s Acting General Counsel.  Six months later, Obama sent Solomon’s name to the Senate, when he nominated Solomon to fill the General Counsel position.  The Senate, however, did not take action on Solomon’s nomination and returned it to the President at the expiration of the Congressional term.  Although Obama resubmitted Solomon’s nomination in May 2013, he later withdrew it and nominated Richard F. Griffin, Jr., whom the Senate confirmed as General Counsel in November 2013.

After one of the Board’s Regional Directors, acting as an agent of the General Counsel, issued as  a complaint alleging Southwest General had committed unfair labor practices, the company argued that Solomon lacked authority to issue and litigate that complaint because his service as Acting General Counsel during the pendency of his nomination to the General Counsel position violated the FVRA.  While the Administrative Law Judge who heard the case and the Board, when it reviewed the ALJ’s decision, rejected that argument, the D.C. Circuit agreed with the employer, and interpreted the FVRA to prohibit any individual (subject to certain limited statutory exceptions that did not apply to Solomon) from serving as an acting officer for a PAS position while he or she was also a nominee to fill that same position for a full term.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

Writing for the majority in NLRB v. SW General, Inc., Chief Justice Roberts wrote “[a]pplying the FVRA to this case is straightforward,” and concluded that once Obama submitted Solomon’s nomination to fill the General Counsel position for a full term, the FVRA prohibited Solomon from continuing in the Acting General Counsel role.  Chief Justice Roberts noted that Obama could have appointed any one of the approximately 250 senior NLRB employees or hundreds of other individuals in PAS positions throughout the federal government to serve as Acting General Counsel during the pendency of Solomon’s nomination.  Because the President did not do so, and Solomon continued to serve as Acting General Counsel, Chief Justice Roberts concluded, Solomon’s continued service as Acting General Counsel after his nomination was submitted to the Senate violated the FVRA.

Chief Justice Roberts also rejected the Board’s argument that, in the past, three different presidents have submitted the nominations of 112 persons for Senate confirmation while they simultaneously served as acting officers under FVRA.  As Chief Justice Roberts pointed out, the FVRA was enacted in 1998, and those 112 nominations made up a small percentage of the total number of nominations for PAS positions that the Senate considered during that time.

Impact of the Court’s Decision

The Court’s ruling will most certainly have an impact on the administration of President Donald Trump, who faces the daunting task of filling the multitude of PAS positions that are either already vacant or will become vacant shortly, as Obama’s appointees transition out.  The decision in SW General will likely have a more limited impact on employers.  When the D.C. Circuit issued SW General, it made clear that it considered the holding to be a narrow one:  Acting General Counsel Solomon served in violation of the FVRA as of the date the President nominated him to be General Counsel.  Moreover, the D.C. Circuit held that any FVRA defect in Acting General Counsel Solomon’s authority to take action could be readily cured if a subsequent, properly-serving General Counsel were to ratify his actions.  Finally, the Circuit made clear that it addressed the FVRA issue only because the employer in Southwest General had timely preserved and raised that objection early in the proceedings.  The Court did not expand the effects of the D.C. Circuit’s ruling with this decision.  The real benefit from the ruling to employers, unions, and others with business before the NLRB may become apparent after Griffin’s four-year term expires in November 2017, when President Trump or any other future President will not be able to designate his or her choice to fill a future vacancy in the position of General Counsel (or in any other PAS position) to serve in such role on an acting basis while their nomination works its way through the Senate confirmation process.

Steven M. SwirskyOver the past week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit weighed in on two separate related efforts by the Obama-Board to expand the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) to workers who are not in traditional employer-employee relationships.

One Court – Two Cases

In a March 3, 2017 decision, the Court rejected the National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB”) finding that FedEx Home Delivery drivers were employees and agreed with the company that the drivers were independent contractors and therefore did not have the right to union representation under the Act.   On March 9th, the Court heard the much anticipated argument on the challenge by Browning –Ferris Industries of California Inc., to the Board’s 2015 decision adopting a new and much looser standard for determining joint employer status. While it is not certain when the Court’s decision will be released, the questions asked by the judges who heard the appeal suggested that they are by no means convinced that the new test articulated in Browning-Ferris is the correct one and consistent with what Congress intended when it passed the Act.

The Court Found FedEx Ground Drivers Are Independent Contractors, Not Employees

A key question in the gig economy is the relationship between a worker and the company for whom they provide services. Those workers who are employees under the Act have the right to join and be represented by unions; independent contractors do not.  The NLRB has gone so far in its efforts as to hold that misclassification of a worker the Board considers to be an independent contractor commits an unfair labor practice when it does so.  The Board has also argued before the Courts that its views on whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor should be afforded deference by the Courts.

The D.C. Circuit’s decision in the FedEx case is of particular interest with regard to each of these propositions. First, the Court noted that under the Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in NLRB v. United Insurance Company of America, the “determination of whether a worker is a statutorily protected ‘employee’ or a statutorily exempt ‘independent contractor’ is governed by common law” and “there is no shorthand formula or magic phrase that can be applied to find the answer.” Thus, while the Board argued that the Court should afford great weight to its application and analysis of the common law test for determining whether the drivers were employees or independent contractors, because the question is “a question of pure common law agency principles ‘involv[ing] no special administrative expertise that a court does not possess,” the Court found that deference to the Board’s views was neither appropriate nor required.

The Court in its analysis and application of the common law test found that the NLRB was wrong to place greater weight on certain factors than others. Because the facts in the FedEx case were virtually identical to an earlier case the Court had considered with the same parties in 2009, the Court held the Board was not entitled to the deference that would be due “between two fairly conflicting view,” because the Court had previously considered and decided the issue.

The Board’s Browning-Ferris Joint Employer Test

The Board’s 2015 Browning-Ferris decision held that an employer could be deemed a joint-employer of another employer’s employees if it was found to exercise or even just has the right to exercise “indirect control” over the other employer’s employees. The D.C. Circuit heard argument on March 9th on the company’s challenge to this standard.  While it is too early to say whether the Court will defer to the Board in this case, the Court’s questions suggested that it at least has doubt as to the Board’s new standard.  For example, Judge Patricia Millet questioned the practicality and future application of the indirect control standard, asking the Board’s attorney “What assurance do we have that this test and particularly indirect control is going to continue to police the line properly between genuine joint employers and [contractors]?

As in the FedEx decision, the application of the common law standards was before the Court, this time in connection with the common law test for determining the existence of an employer-employee relationship, which is one of the requirements of the Browning-Ferris standard. Counsel for Browning-Ferris argued that “the notion of exertion control dovetails with Congress’ understanding of the essence of a common-law employment relationship as direct supervision.” If the Court agrees with this proposition, then it would seem questionable that the Court will accept the Board’s view that possession, without exercise, of indirect control is sufficient to find a joint-employment relationship.

What Do These Cases Tell Us?

Since last November’s election, there has been a great deal written and said about what a Trump Labor Board will likely mean for the legacy of the Obama Board. However, in examining that legacy it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the Board’s decisions are not self-enforcing and are subject to review and enforcement by the Courts of Appeal.  While the Board continues to follow its Doctrine of Non-Acquiescence, meaning it will not accept the holdings of any court other than the United States Supreme Court as binding upon it if it disagrees with the Court’s interpretation of or views concerning the application of the Act, the D.C. Circuit and other Courts have continued to take serious issue with the Board’s position.

It will be interesting to see, once a new Board with a majority of members is appointed by the new President, not only how it addresses the myriad of representation and unfair labor practice precedents that are the product of the Obama Board, but also whether it continues to stand by the Doctrine of Non-Acquiescence and how this shapes its relationship with the judiciary.