In Midwest Division-MMC, LLC, d/b/a/ Menorah Medical Center v. NLRB, the D.C. Circuit rejected the Board’s unprecedented application of Weingarten rights to voluntary meetings, by reversing the Board’s Decision that would have extended the right of employees to have union representation at meetings at which the employees’ attendance is not compelled.

Kansas state law requires hospitals to establish an internal mechanism to monitor the standard of care provided by nursing professionals.  Pursuant to this law, Menorah Medical Center (“Menorah” or “Hospital”) established a Nursing Peer Review Committee (“Committee”) to investigate alleged violations of the prevailing standard of care.  If substantiated, the Committee reports the violation to the state licensing agency, but the Committee itself does not impose discipline.  If a violation is reported, the state, not the employer, may suspend or revoke a nurse’s license.

In May 2012, two nurses received letters alleging that they had engaged in unprofessional conduct. The letters advised that the nurses could address the Committee at a hearing “if you choose,” but also gave the nurses the option to submit a written statement in lieu of a personal appearance.  Both nurses requested union representation at the Committee hearing, but the Hospital denied their requests.  Their union subsequently filed an unfair labor practice charge alleging that the Hospital violated the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”) by denying the nurses’ requests for union representation at the hearing.

The D.C. Circuit Court Finds There Is No Right to Union Representation at Voluntary Meetings

The Board found that the Hospital’s denial violated the Act because employees have a right to union representation under Weingarten in “interviews where there is a reasonable belief that the employee will be disciplined,” regardless of whether the employees’ attendance is compulsory or voluntary.  This was an overt expansion of employees’ Weingarten rights which only apply to a unionized employee’s right to representation at a mandatory meeting an employer requires them to answer potentially incriminating questions which may result in disciplinary action by the employer.

The D.C. Circuit Court, however, unanimously reversed the Board’s decision. The Circuit Court, quoting the Supreme Court’s Weingarten decision, held that an employee’s Weingarten rights are infringed only when an employer compels an employee’s attendance at an interview that might reasonably be expected to lead to discipline and denies his or her request for union representation.  Specifically, the Supreme Court in Weingarten delineated the limited representation right as:

…the employee’s individual right to engage in concerted activity by seeking the assistance of his statutory representative if the employer denies the employee’s request and compels the employee to appear unassisted at an interview which may put his job security in jeopardy.

Here, the Hospital’s letters to the nurses clearly conveyed their attendance at the hearing was voluntary and even allowed them to submit a written statement as an alternative to attending.  Accordingly, the right to union representation under Weingarten was not triggered.

The Court also rejected the Board’s finding that, after denying a request for union representation in these circumstances, the employer must discontinue the interview unless the employee voluntarily agrees to continue after the employer explains to the employee that he or she has a choice to continue the interview without a representative present or not have the interview at all.  The Court explained that the letters sent to the nurses made it clear that their attendance was voluntary, and Weingarten “contains no suggestion that the NLRA requires an employer to renew advice to an employee that her attendance at a hearing is optional.”  The Court distinguished the precedent relied upon by the Board on the ground that all the cases involved compulsory attendance at interviews.

The Concurrence Suggests Weingarten Rights Do Not Apply Outside Interviews Conducted by Employers

Notably, in a concurring opinion, Circuit Judge Kavanaugh emphasized that the majority’s opinion assumes arguendo that Weingarten rights could apply to peer review committees without deciding this threshold question.  Judge Kavanaugh explained that, were the Court to decide this threshold question, he would hold Weingarten rights do not apply in peer review committee interviews.  Rather, Weingarten rights exist “to redress the perceived imbalance of economic power between labor and management,” and therefore apply primarily in the context of disciplinary investigations conducted by the employer.  When the interview is conducted by a state-mandated peer review committee that is not part of the employer’s disciplinary process, Weingarten rights do not apply.

NLRB Acting Chair Philip Miscimarra has given the clearest indication to date of what steps a new Republican majority is likely to take to reverse key elements of the Labor Board’s hallmark actions of the Obama administration once President Trump nominates candidates for the Board’s two open seats and the Senate confirms. In each of these cases, Miscimarra highlighted his earlier opposition to the majority’s changes in long standing precedents and practices.

The Acting Chair’s Position On the Board’s 2014 Amended Election Rules – The Emphasis On “Speed Above All Else” is Inconsistent With the Law

In a strongly worded dissent in European Imports, Inc., 365 NLRB No. 41 (February 23, 2017), the Acting Chair took issue the majority’s decision to deny an Employer’s Emergency Request for Review, that sought to postpone and reschedule a representation election scheduled to take place only three days after a significant number of the employees who would be eligible to vote approximately 25%, learned that they were included in the bargaining unit, and would be affected by the outcome of the vote.

In its Emergency Request, the employer urged the Board to postpone the election by a week, to endure that the employees would know whether they would be eligible to vote and if they were, to allow them to get the facts and make an informed decision when they voted. It also argued that holding the election so soon after the issuance of the Direction of Election “would deprive many employees of sufficient notice that they would be voting in election that would dictate whether they would have union representation.”

Disagreeing with the decision of Members Mark Pearce and Lauren McFerran to deny the employer’s Emergency Request without comment, Miscimarra took issue not only with the denial of this Request, but more broadly, with the Board’s 2014 Amended Election Rule (the “Rule”) and its “preoccupation with speed between petition-filing and the election,” the Rule’s “single-minded standard” calling for “every election (to be) scheduled for ‘the earliest date practicable . . .”

Miscimarra reiterated his position, as expressed in his dissent to the Board’s adoption of the amended Election Rule in 2014, that such an emphasis on speed above all else is inconsistent with the Board’s duty under the National Labor Relations Act “to assure to employees the fullest freedom in exercising the rights guaranteed” by the Act.

The Acting Chair again called for the Board to establish “concrete parameters” for the scheduling of elections that would ensure “reasonable minimum and maximum times between the filing of a representation petition and the holding of an election.”

In addition to addressing issues of timing, Miscimarra also took issue with the fact that during the representation hearing preceding the Direction of Election. The Board’s Regional Director had refused to permit the employer to present evidence and develop a record as to why it was being prejudiced in this case by the 2014 Amended Election Rule. The Regional Director ruled that because earlier judicial challenges to the facial validity of the Election Rule had been dismissed, the employer could not litigate the actual prejudice the Rule caused in this case.

Miscimarra made clear that in his view, the fact that earlier facial challenges to the Amended Election Rule had been dismissed, questions as to the validity of the Rule, when applied to specific facts remains open and that it is a “clear error and an abuse of discretion” to deny an employer the opportunity to litigate such issues when they arise.

The Acting Chair’s Position On the Obama Board’s Handbook and E-Mail Decisions

In another dissent in Verizon Wireless Inc., 365 NLRB No. 38 (February 24, 2017)  Miscimarra reiterated his strong dispute with the way in which the Obama Board has analyzed and decided cases challenging employee handbooks and policies, writing that Board’s current standard for deciding such cases “defies common sense.”

Under the Board’s 2004 Lutheran Heritage standard, the Board will find a handbook provision or policy to violate the Act and unlawfully interfere with employees’ rights to engage in concerted, protected activity if which in part rendered work rules and handbook provisions unlawful if employees “would reasonably construe” them to prohibit protected activities under Section 7 of the Act.

The Acting Chair reiterated his view, as explained in his lengthy 2016, dissent in William Beaumont Hospital, 363 NLRB No. 162, that the Board’s current test is unworkable, and fails to adequately recognize employer’s legitimate needs of employers. Calling on the Board and the Courts to overturn and reject the Lutheran Heritage standard, Miscimarra urged the adoption in its place of a new balancing test that would not only focus on employees’ rights under the Act, but that would also take into account employers’ legitimate justifications for a particular policy or rule, such as attempting to avoid potentially fatal accidents, reduce the risk of workplace violence or prevent unlawful harassment.

Miscimarra also took direct aim in his dissent at the He also wrote that he believes the Board should overturn its Purple Communication decision allowing employee virtually unfettered use of employer email systems and return to the former standard in Register Guard, which recognized that such systems are employer property and should be recognized as such. The dissent described the standard under Purple Communications as “incorrect and unworkable,” and called for a standard that would once again recognize “the right of employers to control the uses of their own property, including their email systems, provided they do not discriminate against NLRA-protected communications by distinguishing between permitted and prohibited uses along Section 7 lines.”

What This Means for Employers

As we noted when the President appointed then Member Miscimarra to serve as Acting Chair of the Board, meaningful change in how the Board interprets and applies the Act will not come until the two vacant seats are filled and a new majority is able to act. Additionally, current General Counsel Richard F. Griffin, Jr.’s term runs through August 4, 2017.

We expect change to come as ULP issues get before the Board. It is to be expected that any new Members appointed by the President will almost certainly share Acting Chair Miscimarra’s views on such issues as use of employer email systems and the review and enforcement of workplace rules, handbooks and the like.  A new balancing test such as that proposed in the Beaumont Hospital dissent is quite foreseeable.

Concerning the Amended Election Rule, things are a bit trickier. The Rule itself was the result of formal rule making, with public comment and input after the Board published its proposed Rule in the Federal Register.  Major changes in the Rule itself would require a new Board to follow the same processes, which are quite lengthy. However, there is certainly room, as Miscimarra’s dissent in European Imports demonstrates, for the Board to make changes in how it administers and processes cases even under this Rule, before any change to the Rule itself becomes effective.  The Acting Chair’s comments concerning the right of employers and other parties to due process, including the right to develop a complete factual record on disputed, material issues is something that can be changed through the administration and application of the Rule even without formal change.  So to, it would not be surprising for a new General Counsel to give guidance to the Board’s Regional Offices calling for them to apply their discretion to avoid circumstances like those that triggered the Emergency Request in European Imports to make sure that there are no more “three day elections.”

Periods such as this, where there is transition in interpretation and enforcement, are challenging but in reality they have been a part of the history of the enforcement and application of the Act for more than 80 years.  Students of the Board often speak of a pendulum and the need for those with business before the Board to try to anticipate its swings.  Careful consideration of not just what the “law” is now, but also what it is likely to be going forward will now once again be the watchword.

 

On February 23, 2017 the National Labor Relations Board (“Board” or “NLRB”) made public a proposed Final Rule to revise its Rules and Regulations “ (the “Rules”)  to reflect modern technology, such as E-Filing, and eliminate references to telegraphs, carbon copies, and the requirements for hard copy submissions and multiple copies, and to eliminate legalistic terms” from the Rules.

Because the Board contends these amendments to its Rules as “procedural rather than substantive,” it has taken the position that it is not obligated to allow for comment before the amended rules are formally adopted and take effect, and that the amendments to the Rules and Regulations will take effect ten days after their publication in the Federal Register. The Board then published the amendments on Friday February 24th, which means they are to take effect on March 7, 2017, absent any judicial intervention.

An initial reading of the amended Rules and the Board’s summary suggests that most of the changes really are procedural in nature and unlikely to have a material impact on the outcome of representation or unfair labor practice proceedings before the Board. However, given the fact that the Board has demonstrated an increasing tendency in recent actions, particularly since it amended its Rules in representation cases in 2014 to hold parties to increasingly strict compliance standards that can impact substantive rights, it is important for employers who participate in proceedings before the Board and those who represent and counsel them to become familiar with the amended Rules and the changes they include. For that reason we have prepared this summary of what we think are the potentially most significant changes in the Board’s Rules.

Why the Board says it is amending its Rules

The Board has summarized the announcement of its proposed amendments to the Rules and Regulations as being intended to

reorganize the Rules and add headings so that the subject matter is easier to find; incorporate current practices that had not been included in the published Rules, such as the Board’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Program; and update and streamline provisions of the FOIA regulations, . . . clarify the means by which documents are filed and service is made by the parties and the Board, . . .(and) promote the parties’ use of E-Filing, which will facilitate sharing documents with the public.

A Summary of Principal Changes in the These Amendments

The Board has characterized the changes to its Rules in these amendments as falling into five broad categories: I Global Changes, II Definitions, Filing and Service, III “Unfair Labor Practice Cases, IV FOIA, and V Other Sections.

The amended Rules and the Board’s description of the changes run to 167 pages and given the fact that the Board in many circumstances holds the employers, unions and employees who appear before the Board in unfair labor practice and representation cases to strict compliance with its Rules, we have prepared this Act Now Advisory to summarize for readers what, as of now, appear to be the principle changes in the amended Rules.

Notably, although when the Board adopted amendments to the Rules and its procedures in representation cases that took effect in April 2015, the Board published extensive comparative materials for practitioners and members of the public describing how those amendments changed requirements and practice, as of yet no similar analysis has been released by the Board concerning the new amendments to the Rules.

Our review and comments in this Advisory follow the Board’s five categories: Global Changes, Definitions, Filing, and Service, Unfair Labor Practice (“ULP”) Cases, Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) matters, and Other Sections of the Board’s Rules.

Notably, and perhaps not surprising given that the existing rules concerning Representation Proceedings were adopted by the Board in 2014 and implemented in 2015, after extensive review and comment, the amended Rules do not specifically address any of the sections of the Rules concerning Representation Cases.

I Global Changes

These changes to the Board’s Rules apply to all types of cases and proceedings. Key changes are as follows:

  • All requirements for filing multiple copies of documents have been removed from the Rules. Under the existing Rules, there were numerous circumstances where parties were required to submit multiple copies of documents. This often caused confusion when a party used the Board’s E-Filing system to electronically file documents.
  • The amended Rules use plain English. The amended Rules have been revised “to use plain English and eliminate terms such as “therefrom,” “thereupon,” “therein,” “herein” and “said.”
  • Time periods have been changed to multiples of 7. While the Summary suggests that all time period calculations have been changed to multiples of 7, this is not actually so. For example, in representation cases, there are still numerous requirements that filings be made and actions taken in shorter time frames. Parties will need to consult the actual section of the Rules to determine what the applicable time requirements are
  • Gender specific language is eliminated in many cases.
  • Ambiguous words are replaced. The word “shall” has been replaced with either the word “must,” ”will” or “may” to make clear whether a particular action is required or discretionary.

II Changes Concerning Definitions, Filing and Service

The Board’s filing and service requirements, contained in Sections 102.111 through 102.114 of the Rules have been reorganized and modified. Rather than placing filing and service requirements in the portions of the Rules that addressed particular types of cases and proceedings, all filing and service requirements are consolidated in Section 102 of the amended Rules.

  • Separate sections for definitions and service and filing.
  • New provisions addressing notice to the Board of “supplemental authority and signatures on E-filed documents. See Sections 102.6 and 102.7.
  • Time requirements for filings in Board cases have been reorganized. See Section 102.2.
  • The Board has changed the Rules’ “time computation” provisions for filing “responsive documents.” Under the amended Rules, “the designated period” for filing a responsive document will now begin to run “on the date the preceding document was received by the Agency, even if the preceding document was filed prior” to the date it was due to be filed.
  • Calculation of when an E-Filed document must be filed. Under the amended Rules, E-Filed documents must now be filed and received on the due date “by 11:59 p.m. of the receiving office’s time zone.”
  • The amended Rules change the requirements concerning requests for extensions of time to file documents with the Board.
    • Requests for extension of time must generally be filed no later than the date on which the document is dues, but may be filed within 3 days of the due date in circumstances “not reasonably foreseeable in advance.”
    • All requests for extensions of time must be in writing. While such requests have typically been made in writing, the Rules did not actually require this until now.
    • The amended Rules add language encouraging parties to seek agreement from other parties for extensions of time and requiring that any request for an extension of time include the positions of all other parties. Hereto, while most practitioners have typically taken these steps and the Board has encouraged them, they have not been required by the Rules before.
    • The amended Rules require any party opposing a request for an extension of time to file their opposition in writing “as soon as possible following receipt of the request.”
  • Newly added Section 102.2 (d) puts in writing for the first time the Board’s practices and requirements in connection with documents that are not filed or served by the time required and established procedures for requesting permission to file a document after it is due.
    • The amended Rules allow for the late filing of certain documents “within a reasonable time after the time” required under the Rules “upon good cause shown based on excusable neglect and when no prejudice would result.” Significantly the term “excusable neglect” is not defined in the Rules or the Act.
    • The amended Rules indicate that the types of documents that may be filed late in unfair labor practice proceedings are motions, exceptions, answers to complaints and backpay specifications and briefs.
    • The amended Rules indicate that the types of documents that may be filed late in representation cases are exceptions, requests for review, motions, briefs, and responses to each of these types of documents,
    • Under the amended Rules, any request to file one of the specified documents must be made by written motion, and the motion must include the document the party is seeking permission to file late and the grounds for the request, which need to include the “good cause” and the reasons the party asserts that no prejudice would result. These facts must be contained in an affidavit and “sworn to by individuals with personal knowledge of the facts.”
    • A party opposing a request for permission to late file can file an opposition to the request, but not until after a ruling on the request. In other words, a party cannot oppose a request for permission to file late until after the request has been granted.
  • The amended Rules change the methods of service that are permitted.
    • Parties can no longer serve papers by telegraph.
    • The amended Rules give the Board the right to serve any documents by facsimile or email.
    • The amended Rules authorize the service of subpoenas by private delivery service.
    • Section 102.5 (c) provides for much greater use of the Board’s E-Filing system for the electronic filing of documents. Under the new rule, the Board adopts the requirement that all documents other than unfair labor practice charges, representation petitions and showings of interest in representation cases must be filed through the Board’s E-Filing system unless a party submits with its hard copy document a written statement explaining why the party does not have access to the means to use E-Filing or why E-Filing would impose an undue burden on the party.
    • Section 102.5 (e) restricts the ability of parties to file documents with the Board by facsimile. Under the amended Rules, the only documents that may be filed by facsimile are unfair labor practice charges, representation case petitions, objections to conduct affection the outcome of a representation election, and request for extension of time for filing of documents.
  • New provisions for Notice to the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) or Board of Supporting Authority.
    • Section 102.6 adds a formal process for the first time enabling a party to make a supplemental submission, after it has filed a brief to the Board or an ALJ, when it becomes aware of “pertinent and significant legal authority.”
    • A party may bring such authority to the attention of the ALJ or the Board by “promptly filing a letter with the judge or the Board,” and serving copies of the letter on all other parties.
    • The body of such a letter “may not exceed 350 words,” and any reply is subject to the same word limit.
    • In an unfair labor practice case, any response must be filed within 14 days, while in a representation proceeding it must be filed within 7 days after service.
  • The amended Rules allow for electronic signatures on documents filed with the Board.
    • While parties have routinely submitted documents with electronic signatures to the Board in the past, the amended Rules formally recognize the use of electronic signatures and make provision for them.
    • Electronic signatures will now have “the same legal effect, validity, and enforceability as if signed manually.” Section 102.7.
    • The amended Rules define electronic signature as “an electronic sound, symbol, or process, attached to or logically associated with a contract or other record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the document.”
    • The Board’s adoption of this rule confirming its acceptance of electronic signatures should come as no surprise, given the announcement by the Board’s General Counsel in September 2015 that the agency would accept employees’ electronic signatures as part of a union’s showing of interest in support of a representation petitions.

III Unfair Labor Practice Cases

  • The changes to the Rules concerning Unfair Labor Practice (“ULP”) cases are primarily procedural and consistent with the administrative-type changes described above.
  • Under revised Section 102.11, a party filing a charge by facsimile will no longer be required to submit the signed original as well. The Board has explained that this change is intended to prevent the docketing a second time of a charge that was filed by E-Filing or facsimile when the hard copy is received by mail.
  • The Board will no longer permit a party filing a charge to submit attachments to the charge form. Section 102.12 (b).
  • Revised Section 102.14 (a) eliminates the requirement that before a party filing a charge serves a copy on the respondent that the respondent’s permission be obtained in advance if the charge is going to served by facsimile. Advance permission will still be required before service of a charge by email.
  • Regional Offices will now be able to serve charges not only by regular mail or facsimile but also in person, by private delivery service, by email or in any other method permitted by Rules 4 and 5 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, or in any other agreed upon manner.
  • The amended rules address the question of when service of a charge is considered to have been made when the charge is served by email.
    • When service is by email, “the date the email is sent” will be considered the date of service.
    • When service is by mail or private delivery service, the date the charge is deposited with the post office or the other carrier will be considered the date of service.
    • In the case of service by facsimile, the date the fax is received will be considered the date of receipt.
    • No explanation is offered for the decision to treat facsimile and email so differently.
  • The amended Rules address the question of when a Regional Director has the authority to change the date, time and place of a ULP hearing, either on his or her own authority or with the agreement of the parties. Under Section 102.16, these may be changed when
    • All parties agree to the change of the hearing date;
    • New ULP charges have been filed which, “if meritorious, might be appropriate for consolidation with” the earlier case or cases;
    • Where there are ongoing settlement discussions which the Regional Director concludes “could lead to settlement of all or a portion of the complaint;’
    • Where there are issues related to the complaint “pending before the General Counsel’s Division of Advice or Office of Appeals;” or
    • Where there are more than 21 days remaining before the scheduled start of the hearing.
    • Note that this gives the Regional Director great discretion as the provisions concerning postponement because of related issues being under consideration by the Division of Advice or the Office of Appeals is not limited to pending cases involving any of the same parties.
  • Section 102.24 (c) codifies what has been the Board’s practice, under D. L. Baker, Inc., 330 NLRB 521, fn. 4(2000) concerning replies to oppositions to motions filed with the Board.
    • A party that has filed a motion with the Board will be permitted to submit a reply to any opposition to that motion within 7 days of its receipt of the opposition, but “in the interest of administrative finality,” no further responses are permitted.
  • The amended Rule 102.31 (a), which concerns subpoenas in ULP cases, now specifically recognizes that Board subpoenas can require the production of “electronic data.”
  • Amended Rule 102.31 (b) codifies that a party adversely affected by a ruling on a petition to revoke a subpoena has the right to make the ruling and related pleadings a part of the record in the ULP hearing.
  • Section 102.45 will for the first time make the Board’s existing Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Program, which is really a mediation program, a part of the Rules.

IV FOIA

The Board’s summary describes the amendments to the Rules concerning the Board’s processing of requests made under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) as being intended to “update and streamline procedural provisions of the (NLRB’s) FOIA regulations,” and to reflect organizational changes within the Board’s Headquarters and “centralization” of the Board’s FOIA processing formerly located in the regional offices. The Rules changes are also described as intended to make the Board’s FOIA regulations “more readable and requester-friendly.”

  • Section 102.117 (c)(1)(ii) codifies the existing requirement that FOIA requests be made to the Board’s FOIA Officer in Washington, rather than to the Regional Office where the case that is the subject of the request was processed.
  • The amended Rules express the Board’s “preference” for requests to be made electronically.
  • The amended Section 102.117 (a)(4) no longer includes a lost of the records the Board will produce under FOIA. Instead, the Board refers parties to the text of the amended FOIA Improvement Act of 2016.
  • Under amended Section 102.117(c)(2)(v), parties will have 90, rather than 28 days to file administrative appeals of adverse determinations on FOIA requests.

V Other Sections

According to the Board’s summary, this group of amendments to the Rules are quite limited.

  • The amended Section 102.96 may be of interest to employers as it relates to the circumstances in which the Board, following investigation of a ULP charge alleging unlawful secondary boycott activity by a union in violation of Section 8 (b)(4) of the Act, determines that Section 10(l) injunctive relief is appropriate and should be sought by the Board in district court.
  • Amended Section 102.96 mandates that the Regional Director is to “promptly” issue a ULP complaint, “normally within 5 days of the dates when injunctive relief is first sought” in court.

The Board’s Required Findings Concerning the Amended Rules

  • While President Trump has spoken repeatedly of his intent to slash the number of rules and regulations under federal law and has called for any new rule or regulation to be offset by the elimination of two existing rules or regulations, the Board has not addressed those mandates in either its summary or the amended Rules themselves. The Board has however made required findings concerning rule making under existing federal laws.
  • As required under the Regulatory Flexibility Act, the Board has determined that the amendments to the Rules “will not have a significant impact on a substantial number of small entities.
  • In accordance with the requirements of the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995, the Board states that the amendments “will not result in the expenditure by state, local, and tribal governments, in the aggregate, or by the private sector, of $100,000,000 or more in any one year.”
  • The Board has concluded that the adoption of the amended Rules “is not a major rule as defined under the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996.”

What Employers Should Do Now

It is perhaps ironic that the Board, composed of two Democrats and one Republican, all holdovers from the Obama Administration, has chosen this moment, just a month into the Trump Administration and as rumors have begun circulating as to who President Trump will nominate to fill the 2 vacant seats on the Board reserved for members of the President’s own parties, i.e. Republicans.

No doubt, once those seats are filled a new Republican majority on the Board will begin to address far more substantive matters under the Act, including the many changes in the interpretation of the Act of the past 8 years.

Regardless of the substantive decision making of the Board, it remains critical that employers and all others with business before the Board understand the procedural and statutory framework under which the Board conducts its business. Those who do not study these amendments and follow their dictates risk being undone by not knowing the rules that govern all cases.

Steven M. Swirsky
Steven M. Swirsky

National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) General Counsel Richard F. Griffin, Jr., has announced in a newly issued Memorandum Regional Directors in the agency’s offices across the country that he is seeking a change in law that would make it much more difficult for employees who no longer wish to be represented by a union to do so.  Under long standing case law, an employer has had the right to unilaterally withdraw recognition from a union when there is objective evidence that a majority of the employees in a bargaining unit no longer want the union to represent them.

The General Counsel Wants the Board to Change the Law

If the General Counsel’s position is agreed to by a majority of the members of the Board, it would be an unfair labor practice for an employer to withdraw recognition from a union, no matter how strong the evidence is that employees do not want to be represented unless and until the employees or the employer petition for a decertification election, a majority of the employees vote against continued representation and the results of the vote are certified.  This would mean that the employer would be required to continue to recognize the union and bargain with it for a new contract even where it knows that a majority of the employees do not want the union to continue to represent them.

Levitz Furniture Allows Employers to Withdraw Recognition Based on Objective Evidence That a Majority Of Employees No Longer Want the Union to Represent Them

Fifteen years ago, in Levitz Furniture Co. of the Pacific, the Board’s then General Counsel made a similar argument to the Board, which it rejected.  While the Board in Levitz held that an employer needed more than an objective good faith belief that a union was no longer supported by the majority, and in essence set a rule that an employer would act at its peril when withdrawing recognition, it rejected the notion that employees who no longer wanted to be represented by a union could only make such a decision in an NLRB election.

The General Counsel Directs Regions to Ignore Existing Law Under Levitz Furniture

In GC Memo 16-03, the General Counsel has directed the Regional Offices to issue an unfair labor practice (ULP) complaint any time a union files a charge in response to an employer’s decision to act in accordance with existing law and withdraw recognition of a union that is no longer supported by the majority of the employees in a unit.  As the Memo states, the Regional Directors are instructed to unilaterally withdraw recognition “under extant law.”  In other words, complaints will be issued in those cases where employers are taking action that the existing law allows, in the hope that the Board will change the law and find the employer guilty of a ULP for taking action that the law allows it to, and respecting the wishes of its employees.

What Happens Next?

An employer faced with evidence that a majority of its employees no longer want to be represented at the end of a contract, has until now had several options.  It could file an RM petition, asking the Board to hold a secret ballot vote to allow the employees to vote on continued representation or it could, if it concluded the evidence that the union had lost majority support was clear, it could inform the union of that fact and therefore that it was withdrawing recognition and would not bargain for a new contract.  Often, such employer action was met with ULP charges by the union and a union effort to convince the employees to stick with it.  If the employer, or for that matter an employee, filed a petition for a decertification election, a common union response has been to fight on and do whatever it could to delay the election and if possible deny the employees of their right to make the decision.  Unions can easily accomplish this desired delay by filing any garden variety unfair labor practice charge which, under NLRB procedures, act to “block” the election until they are fully investigate, litigated and resolved.  Union’s often file multiple and successive blocking charges” to continually delay employees’ ability to exercise their right to become union free.

If the General Counsel is able to convince the Board to overturn Levitz Furniture the result will likely be a serious impairment of the right of employees to decide whether or not they want to continue to be represented.  The General Counsel’s decision to seek to overturn Levitz Furniture should not come as a surprise to those who have read his last GC Memo, 16-01, in which he notified the agency’s Regional Offices of the issues that they must submit to the Division of Advice in the General Counsel’s Office for guidance.  In that memo, issued last month, the General Counsel laid out the road map of his “initiatives and/or priority areas of the law and/or labor policy” and where in his view “there is no governing precedent or the law is in flux.”

Reading the model language included in GC Memo 16-03, it is clear that the General Counsel sees the question of what must happen before an employer may lawfully withdraw recognition to be such an area in “flux” as he references statements in the Levitz Furniture decision in 2001 that if “experience proved” to a future Board that employers were unilaterally withdrawing recognition in the absence of “evidence” clearly indicating that a union had lost majority support, the Board would revisit this question.  While the General Counsel implies that this is why he now wants the Board to revisit the question, GC Memo 16-03 and the model brief language does not point to such evidence.

What Does This Mean for Employers and Employees?

An employer faced with evidence that a majority of its employees no longer wish to be represented by their union has always faced a difficult choice – whether to petition for an election or to respect its employees’ request and take the risk of charges and litigation by immediately withdrawing recognition. Clear understanding of the law and facts, as well as the potential consequences of each course of action has always been critical.  By issuing this Memo and announcing his goal, the stakes have clearly been raised, and the right of employees to decide—perhaps the ultimate purpose of the National Labor Relations Act—has been placed at serious risk.

One of the questions asked of NLRB General Counsel Richard F. Griffin, Jr. following his presentation at this week’s meeting of the Committee on Developments Under the National Labor Relations Act of the American Bar Association was whether the National Labor Relations Board will follow the EEOC’s lead and adopt a practice of turning employers’ position statements in ULP investigations over to the unions and individuals who have filed the charges.

While his carefully phrased response was that the General Counsel’s office has not made such a decision at this time, most of those in the room took his answer to mean that this is probably going to become the Board’s practice as well in the near future.  Given the increased use of investigative subpoenas by the Board, this means that more and more employer records and documents are likely to be given to unions filing charges.  We will continue to monitor and report.

While we have been reminding readers of the fact that  the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) protects employees regardless of whether they are represented by a union and the Act applies to non-unionized workforces, too, recently  a National Labor Relations Board (the “NLRB”) Administrative Law Judge issued a decision following an unfair labor practice (“ULP”)  hearing based on a charge filed by a teacher at New York City’s prestigious Dalton School that should serve as an object lesson for employers in all non-union businesses.

The case, Dalton School, Inc., involved a series of emails concerning a school musical. The case arises out of a doomed production of a middle school rendition of Thoroughly Modern Millie. The Charging Party, David Brune, was one of five teachers in the theater department at the Manhattan private school. In late 2013, the theater department starting putting together the Millie production, including assigning roles, rehearsing lines and songs and preparing sets and costumes. In early January 2014, just weeks before opening night, complaints regarding Asian ethnic stereotypes in the play by parents and faculty were received by the school’s administration.  . The school ordered Brune to discontinue all work on the production two weeks prior to the opening; and eventually, certain offending parts of the play were re-written. Brune only learned that the revamped production would open on schedule three days prior to the opening. Despite the short notice, and with a lot of work in that short period, the production was successful.

Afterwards, Brune shared his views with how the school’s administration handled the concerns and the changes in the play with the other faculty members in the school’s theater department. Through a series of drafted letters to school management, and e-mails within the department, Brune and the others spoke of the redress they felt they should receive for the mishaps with Millie and their views as to how to avoid a repeat in the future. In one of these emails, Brune accused school management of lying to the theater department.

A month after he sent the emails, Brune was called into a meeting with the school management, where they debriefed on the Millie situation. The head of the school asked Brune if he ever said anything negative about the school administration, such as accusing it of lying. He denied saying anything negative. On April 17, 2014, Brune was again summoned to a meeting with School management, but this time, he was presented with a copy of an email he had sent to other teachers during February, in which he wrote that  that management had lied to the theater department and the students. At this meeting, Brune was told his contract would not be renewed for the next year and that he could leave immediately or finish out the school year.

Rather than going quietly into the good night, Brune filed a ULP charge with the New York regional office of the NLRB claiming that he had been terminated for engaging in protected concerted activity, that is his communications with his fellow teachers. Following an investigation, the Board’s Regional Director issued a complaint and the matter was tried before ALJ Arthur J. Amchan.

In defending against the claims, Dalton denied that the decision not to renew Brune’s contract for the following year was not related to any concerted, protected activity.  Rather, the school asserted that the decision not to renew Brune’s contract was based on the fact that he had been dishonest in the March meeting when asked whether he ever stated that School management lied about the Millie production.

The ALJ found otherwise, and concluded that Dalton rescinded his employment contract because he had engaged in protected, concerted activity when he communicated with his fellow teachers about how the school’s administration had handled the matters. Specifically, the ALJ concluded that the e-mails between the theater department members discussing how to address concerns about the Millie production with school management were concerted protected activity. The Judge reasoned that since the e-mails clearly identified each employee who was involved in the e-mail chain, Dalton was aware that there was more than one employee involved in the communications, putting it on notice that the activities were concerted. The ALJ further found that the school’s actions in the March meeting violated the Act because they were designed to “trap” or catch Brune in a lie about the February e-mail.

This case is a vivid illustration of how employee actions about a wide range of work related matters, including in non-unionized workplaces, can rise to the level of protected activity, even if the actions are as simple as the exchange of emails among co-workers.

Over the past year the NLRB has issued a series of decisions which, taken together, mark a dramatic shift in the property rights of employers and expand the right of employees seeking to use their employer’s property to organize.

Two decades ago, in Lechmere, Inc. v. NLRB, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers had a right to limit or deny non-employee union organizers access to their property provided the denial was nondiscriminatory and consistent with state law.  For almost four decades, following its decision in Tri-County Medical Center, Inc., the NLRB has maintained that an employer could prohibit their own employees off-duty access to the working areas of its property, again provided it did so non-discriminatorily.   In a series of decisions the Board has significantly limited these employer rights.

First in New York New York LLC dba New York Hotel & Casino, the Board granted a right to the employees of a contractor/restaurant to access and use the property of the landowner/casino to try to organize the contractor’s employees.  In so doing the Board removed the ability of employers who have on-site contractors to exercise their state property rights and limit off-duty access of the contractors’ employees.

More recently, in Saint John’s Health Center and Sodexo America LLC, the Board has essentially rendered meaningless the provisions of Tri-County Medical Center enabling employers to prohibit off-duty access of employees to working areas.  In both cases the employers had policies prohibiting off-duty access with the exception of attending employer “sponsored events” or for employer-related business.  The Board ruled that because those employers allowed employees to come on to the employers’ premises to attend events as determined by management they did not fall within the Tri-County rule.  However, as the dissent pointed out in both cases, the Board’s new position in essence means that an employer cannot allow an off-duty employee to come on its property to attend a retirement party, pick up a check or fill out employment related paperwork (i.e. vacation or leave request) without also allowing the employee off-duty access to engage in union organizing.

Management Missive

  • Management should review its policies and practice on providing off-duty employees access, ensuring that any exceptions are both narrowly tailored and specific.
  • Like all such policies, Management should make sure that any rules it wishes to have are promulgated prior to any evidence of union activity, recognizing that once organizing activity begins they likely will not be able to adopt any new rules.
  • Management must ensure that any off-duty access rules are clearly articulated and uniformly enforced.
  • Management should seek counsel’s advice prior to disciplining any employees for violating \an off-duty access rule.