One of the more controversial actions of the United States Department of Labor during the Obama Administration was its 2016 issuance of a Final Rule that was intended to radically rewrite the rules concerning the “Advice Exemption” to Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (“LMRDA”). The 2016 Final Rule was hotly contested because it would have required employers and their labor law counsel to report concerning advice the lawyers provided even when the lawyers did not directly communicate with their client’s employees. For almost 50 years such attorney-client communications and dealings were exempt from reporting so long as the attorneys did not speak or otherwise communicate directly with their clients’ employees.
The 2016 Final Rule Would Have Eviscerated the Advice Exemption
That Final Rule would have, for the first time, require employers and their outside law firms to file frequent reports concerning their relationships more frequently than under current law. Until then, as long an employer’s lawyer or consultant did not communicate directly with employees and as long as the employer remained free to accept or reject any draft materials prepared by them (speeches, letters, written communications, etc.), they were covered by the Advice Exemption and not subject to disclosure or reporting by the employer or the counselor.
The 2016 Final Rule was widely recognized as being designed to assist unions by requiring employers and third-party lawyers and other labor consultants to disclose their relationships more frequently than under current law. The Final Rule would have required employers and their consultants to file reports even if the consultants are giving certain guidance to the employer without communicating with employees directly.
At the time, then-Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez commented that “The final rule. . . is designed to ensure workers have the information they need to make informed decisions about exercising critical workplace rights such as whether to form a union or join a union.”
The DOL Was Enjoined from Enforcing the 2016 Final Rule
Numerous legal challenges were brought before the 2016 Final Rule was to take effect on July 1, 2016. On June 27, 2016, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a nationwide preliminary injunction halting the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) controversial new Persuader Rule and its new Advice Exemption Interpretation.
On November 16, 2016, one week after the presidential election, the Court made permanent its earlier injunction, “pending a final resolution of the merits of this case or until a further order of this Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Firth Circuit or the United States Supreme Court.”
The DOL Has Now Withdrawn the 2016 Final Rule
Since that time, while there has been wide speculation that the Trump DOL would not defend the 2016 Final Rule and that it would ultimately abandon it and return to the prior rules and interpretations of the LMRDA that recognized that communications with and advice from counsel that did not involve direct communications with clients’ employees would be recognized as communications and advice protected by the privilege for attorney-client communications, it was not until this week that the DOL formally acted.
On July 17, 2018, the DOL issued a formal notice rescinding the 2016 Final Rule. As a result the cloud that has existed over attorney client communications and the privilege that they have enjoyed has cleared. As the DOL noted in its News Release:
The Persuader Rule impinged on attorney-client privilege by requiring confidential information to be part of disclosures and was strongly condemned by many stakeholders, including the American Bar Association. A federal court has ruled that the Persuader Rule was incompatible with the law and client confidentiality.
For decades, the Department enforced an easy-to-understand regulation: Personal interactions with employees done by employers’ consultants triggered reporting obligations, but advice between a client and attorney did not. By rescinding this Rule, the Department stands up for the rights of Americans to ask a question of their attorney without mandated disclosure to the government.