Last Friday – the day the Star Wars movie Episode VIII hit theaters and the last working day of National Labor Relations Board Chairman Philip A. Miscimarra’s term – the Board continued its efforts to undo some of the most controversial and problematic decisions rendered by the Obama Board before the Republicans temporarily lose their majority.  As we previously reported, recent days have seen a stream of significant decisions and other actions from the National Labor Relations Board.  Most notably, the Board discarded the much criticized indirect control test for determining joint-employer status adopted in Browning Ferris joint employer test and returned to its traditional joint employer standard; it established a new, more reasonable standard under which the legality of employer policies and handbooks will be assessed which, unlike the former test, actually gives weight to an employer’s legitimate interests in promulgating the rule; and it opened public comment on the expedited election rules and procedures, the first critical step to amending those rules.

Notably, these and the other decisions discussed in this article involve issues which the Board’s new General Counsel identified as being among those subject to mandatory submission to the Division of Advice, i.e, “Cases that involve issues over the last eight years that overruled precedent and involved one or more dissents.”

The Board continued its own reconsideration of cases in which the Obama Board had overruled precedent, often over the dissent of Chairman Miscimarra, on Friday with two more significant decisions:  PCC Structurals, which overturned the “overwhelming community of interest” test that the Board has adopted in Specialty Healthcare, which has been seen as leading to the proliferation of “micro bargaining units,” and Raytheon Network, which reinstated employers’ right to unilaterally implement changes when there is not a collective bargaining agreement in effect, where such changes are consistent with established past practice.  As discussed below, collectively these decisions are beginning to restore balance to labor relations after nearly a decade of pro-union decisions that discarded long standing Board precedents.

PCC Structurals Restores the Traditional Community-of-Interest Standard – Overturns Specialty Healthcare’s “Overwhelming Community of Interest” Test

In 2011, the Board in Specialty Healthcare materially changed the test that it would use to assess how it will address the scope of a unit for a representation election and collective bargaining when a union petitioned for an election in a bargaining unit that the employer argued was too narrowly drawn because it  improperly excluded similarly situated employees who shared a community of interest with the petitioned-for workers.  Rather than evaluating whether it was a “sufficiently distinct” community of interest between the petitioned-for unit and excluded employees, as long-standing precedent required, in Specialty Healthcare, the Board held that a petitioned-for unit would be deemed appropriate unless, as the PCC Structurals decision points out, the employer proved “the next-to impossible burden . . . that ‘employees inside and outside [the] proposed unit share an overwhelming community of interest’ . . . .”  Under the Specialty Healthcare standard, employers contesting a union’s petitioned-for unit had the herculean burden of showing that other employees’ interests “overlap almost completely” with the union’s desired group.

As the majority in PCC Structurals pointed out, Specialty Healthcare afforded “extraordinary deference” to the union’s petitioned-for unit and led to the rise of fractured “micro-bargaining” units that defy well-established industry rules.  For example, under Specialty Healthcare, the Board has approved units limited to individual sales departments within a department  store, “notwithstanding the Board’s longstanding rule that favors storewide units within the retail industry,”  and units of prepress employees that exclude press employees in contravention of “the Board’s ‘traditional’ rule that press and prepress employees should ordinarily be included in the same ‘lithographic unit.’”  In PCC Structurals, the Board observed these results ignored the substantial interests of excluded employees and interfered with their rights under the Act.

To rectify these problematic results and better effectuate the Act’s goal of assuring “employees their fullest freedom in exercising their rights under the Act,” the Board in PCC Structurals overturned Specialty Healthcare and returned to the standard that governed the assessment of petitioned-for units for nearly all of the Act’s history prior to Specialty Healthcare.  Under the reinstated standard, the Board will evaluate whether the excluded employees also share a community of interest with the petitioned-for unit and, if so, will include them in the unit.

Specifically, as it had for decades prior to Specialty Healthcare, the Board will return to the traditional community-of-interest multi-factor test which examines:

whether the employees are organized into separate department; have district skills and training; have distinct job functions and perform distinct work, including inquiry into the amount and type of job overlap between job classifications; are functionally integrated with the Employer’s other employees; have frequent contact with other employees; interchange with other employees; have distinct terms and conditions of employment and are separately supervised.

As the majority observed, in ensuring the Board examines the interests of all employees (both included and excluded), it “corrects the imbalance created by Specialty Healthcare…”

Raytheon Network Reinstates Employers’ Right To Implement Unilateral Changes Pursuant to Past Practice After the Collective Bargaining Agreement Expires

In 2016, the Board majority in E.I. Du Pont De Nemours held that, after a collective bargaining agreement expires, unilateral changes implemented by an employer pursuant to established past practice were unlawful if the change involved managerial discretion.    Then-member Miscimarra vigorously dissented, arguing that the majority’s decision created an untenable definition of “change” that defies common sense and encompasses any action that involves the slightest managerial discretion, despite being materially indistinguishable in kind or degree from the employer’s customary past actions.

In Raytheon Network, the Board reversed E.I. Du Pont and adopted Chairman Miscimarra’s reasoning in his Du Pont dissent.  The Board majority noted that, under Du Pont, an employer would be found to have made an unlawful unilateral change in violation of Section 8(a)(5) of the Act, even though the employer merely “continues to do precisely what it had done many times previously – for years or even decades…”  The majority held this “fundamentally flawed” position “is inconsistent with Section 8(a)(5), it distorts the long-understood, commonsense understanding of what constitutes a change, and it contradicts well-established Board and court precedent.”  The Board also pointed out that the Du Pont extreme view of “change” was contrary to the guidance of the Supreme Court in NLRB v. Katz, on which the Board’s pre-Du Pont decisions were based. The Board concluded that continuing adherence to the Du Pont change standard could not be reconciled with the Board’s responsibility to foster stable bargaining relationships.  Accordingly, the majority overruled Du Pont and reinstated the rule that an employer may lawfully take unilateral actions “that do not materially vary in kind or degree from what has been customary in the past,” even though such actions may involve some managerial discretion.

With Miscimarra’s Exit, Dismantling The Obama Board’s Legacy Will Likely Stall

The Obama Board frequently broke with longstanding precedent and ushered in new rules that arguably favored labor unions while disregarding the legitimate business concerns of employers.  These decisions were often met with vigorous dissents warning that such decisions would cause unpredictable, unfair, and unsustainable results in labor-management relations.  The most prominent and vocal of these dissenters was Chairman Miscimarra.  Since attaining a Republican majority, the Board has implemented many of the rules and principles articulated in Miscimarra’s dissents, overturning some of the most controversial decisions rendered by the Obama Board and this past week’s decisions have certainly helped cement Chairman Miscimarra’s legacy of pragmatic adherence to the traditional principles of the Act.  However, with the expiration of Chairman Miscimarra’s term on December 16, 2017, the Board returns to 2 Republicans and 2 Obama-era holdover Democrats.  While various names have circulated as possible candidates for the now vacant seat, as of yet the President has not yet sent a name to Congress, nor has he indicated who he plans to nominate.  Thus, at least for now, the recent progress in reexamining and moving away from the Obama Board’s legacy remains on hold, at least at the Board level.  However, given the General Counsel’s recent announcement of issues targeted for submission to the Division of Advice, including all “Cases that involve issues over the last eight years that overruled precedent and involved one or more dissents,” there is every reason to believe that once a new majority is in place, the Board will, as the Jedi say, seek to bring balance to the Act.

The House of Representatives recently passed the Save Local Business Act (H.R. 3441), which marks an important step in the campaign to reverse the Board’s controversial loosening in Browning Ferris Industries of the long standing tests for determining whether two businesses are joint employers expansion and share bargaining obligations and liability for each other’s actions.  The measure seeks to protect businesses with staffing, franchise and other contractual relationships from liability and union bargaining obligations for another business’ workers unless one business exercises direct control over the employees of the other.

Browning Ferris Expanded Liability for Franchises and Contractors

As we have previously reported, the Board fashioned a new joint employer standard in its 2015 Browning Ferris decision, which expanded joint employer status to any entity that merely possesses, but does not actually exercise, direct or indirect control over the working conditions of another business’ employees.   Browning Ferris jettisoned decades of Board precedent, which formerly required putative joint employers to not only possess the means to control terms and conditions of employment, but to also exercise that control in some meaningful way.  This decision widely impacted franchises as well as businesses that utilize contractors or retain personnel employed by staffing or temporary employment agencies.  If found a joint employer, the business can be required to bargain with any union representing its contractors employees and found liable for any unfair labor practices it or the contractor commits.

Citing a statistic that more than 2.87 million workers are now employed through temporary employment agencies, the Board and labor unions hailed the decision as a critical refinement that better reflects the economic realities of the modern workplace given the rise of nontraditional employment arrangements and complex franchise and contractual relationships  in which two or more independent businesses often arguably co-determine working conditions.  Opponents, however, say the revised standard hurts small businesses and creates liability for employers who, in reality, have absolutely no actual influence over the other employer’s employees’ working conditions.  In just the short time since Browning-Ferris, some of these fears have ostensibly materialized as the Board has sanctioned mixed bargaining units comprised of “solely employed workers” and “jointly employed workers,” and now requires separate businesses to bargain jointly over working conditions even though one or more of the businesses may have no actual influence or control over the working conditions of the other business’ employees.

Next Steps For The Save Local Business Act

Although Browning-Ferris is currently on appeal before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the Save Local Business Act represents an attempt to forge a path forward by amending the Act itself to clarify who may be considered a joint employer.   The bill passed the House with a vote of 242-181, with eight Democrats voting in favor of the measure.  Republicans have been touting the bill as a bipartisan success, but the measure may have a difficult road ahead in the Senate.  A similar bill died in the Senate last year after it failed to garner enough support from Democrats.  There is a good chance that the Save Local Business Act will meet a similar fate if it fails to secure bipartisan support in the Senate, which it is not likely to receive.  That is because although Republicans would have the votes to pass the Act, if it reached the floor for a vote, they do not at this time have the 60 votes they would need to overcome an effort to filibuster by Senate Democrats.

As we have previously reported, Unions currently face a serious existential threat as the unionized workforce in America continuously declines and the looming threat of a National Right to Work law steadily grows.  Recognizing that when employees have a choice, they are losing the battle for the hearts and minds, Unions have not taken these deleterious developments lying down and have deployed numerous countermeasures designed to increase their dues paying membership, including unprecedented forays into previously untouched industries and membership pools.  These efforts extend beyond “employees” as unions now are also targeting independent contractors, with one of the most notable being the robust ridesharing industry made popular by apps like Uber and Lyft.

Uber and Lyft have become synonymous with affordable, on-demand transportation throughout the world.  Their innovative business model has reinvigorated the for-hire transportation market –historically dominated by powerful unions and restrictive legislation – with some much needed competition.  These apps have created an inexpensive and efficient alternative in on-demand transportation while giving entrepreneurial drivers an opportunity to earn extra income on their own schedule and their own terms.  This could all change, though, if unions successfully infiltrate the rideshare market:  drivers could lose the flexibility they enjoy, consumers could see a sharp rise in costs and the rideshare market could lose its competitive ability to dynamically adjust to consumer demands.

A Federal District Court Rejects The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Motion For Injunction Relief Pending Appeal Of the Court’s Finding That Seattle’s Ordinance Is Not Preempted By The National Labor Relations Act. 

Rideshare drivers utilizing apps like Uber and Lyft are independent contractors and, therefore, are expressly excluded from the collective bargaining rights granted by the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”).  In December 2015, Seattle passed Ordinance 124968, which conferred collective bargaining rights on rideshare drivers.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce subsequently filed an action in the U.S. District Court of Washington, Western District, claiming, among other things, that the Ordinance was preempted by the Act.  On April 7, 2017, the District Court temporarily enjoyed enforcement of the Ordinance pending the outcome of the litigation.

However, on August 1, 2017, the District Court lifted the injunction after it granted Seattle’s motion to dismiss, finding that the Act’s independent contractor exclusion did not preempt state law. The Court likened the independent contractor exclusion to other exclusions in the Act, such as the agricultural laborer and domestic service worker exclusions, which have long been held not to preempt state law.

In doing so, the District Court rejected the Chamber’s attempt to analogize the independent contractor exclusion to the Act’s supervisor exclusion, which decidedly preempts state law.  Citing to the legislative history of the supervisor exclusion, the District Court reasoned that Congress deemed the unionization of supervisors “a threat to the very purposes of the Act as well as the interests of both labor and management,” and these destructive consequences “would arise regardless of whether supervisors unionized under NLRA or under state law.”  By contrast, the District Court concluded, Congress did not identify unionization of independent contractors “as a threat to the free flow of goods, nor is there any indication that allowing them to participate in the collective action would threaten the independence of labor organizations or the rights of management.”

As further support for its holding, the District Court cited Section 14(a) of the Act, which allows supervisors to organize, but precludes the Board from compelling employers to recognize such unions.  No similar provision exists for independent contractors, agricultural laborers, or domestic workers, so the Court concluded the Act treated these groups alike.

Interestingly, the District Court did not engage in a deep analysis of Congress’ purpose for excluding independent contractors or whether, like the supervisor exclusion, those reasons justified preemption of state law, let alone did it examine whether the Act’s purpose in regulating the free flow of commerce constituted preemption.  It merely concluded that the justifications behind the independent contractor exclusion were different than those driving the supervisor exclusion and, because there was no express exemption specifically applicable to independent contractors like there was for supervisors, independent contractors were intended to be treated “more like the other excluded groups who have long been the subject of state regulation.”

On August 24, 2017, the Chamber filed a motion for injunction relief pending appeal of the District Court’s Order.  The same federal judge that granted Seattle’s motion to dismiss denied the Chamber’s motion for preliminary injunction, thereby permitting the Union to commence its organizing drive of Uber and Lyft drivers.

Ninth Circuit Temporarily Grants The Chambers’ Emergency Motion For Injunction Relief While It Considers The Merits Of The Motion

On August 29, 2017, the Chamber filed an emergency motion for injunctive relief with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal.  The Ninth Circuit temporarily granted the motion while the Court considered the merits of the motion.  Seattle filed its opposition to the Motion on September 5, 2017, and the Chamber’s filed its reply September 7, 2017.  Importantly, this truly could only be a temporary reprieve for rideshare companies as the Ninth Circuit Provided no indication one way or the other as to its leaning on the merits.

The Fate Of Unionization of Rideshare Drivers

Ninth Circuit’s ruling effectively stayed the Union’s right to begin its efforts to unionize Uber and Lyft drivers, but this reprieve may only be temporary.  If the Ninth Circuit denies the emergency motion, it will clear the way for Teamsters, Local 117 to begin its organizing drive while the Chamber appeals the dismissal of its lawsuit to block the Ordinance.  However, even if the Court denies injunctive relief and Teamsters successfully organizes the drivers, the Ninth Circuit could still decide the Act preempts Seattle’s unprecedented ordinance and reverse the Union’s gain.  If Ninth Circuit sides with Seattle, though, and permits the Ordinance to stand, this scenario will likely be repeated in other cities across the nation as Unions, with the aid of the members of city councils and legislatures they funded and elected, desperately seek to reverse the long running trend of declining membership by targeting new industries.  And if this occurs, the rideshare industry will likely be dramatically transformed in fundamental ways – ways that may destroy the flexibility and affordability that made this industry so popular in the first place.

In what may be a harbinger of good things to come, the NLRB recently reversed an Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) finding that Macy’s, Inc.’s confidentiality policies unlawfully interfered with employees’ Section 7 rights.  Unlike many employer policy decisions issued by the Board in recent years, this case does not break new ground or saddle employers with new, unrealistic onuses.  It merely reinforces well-established rules regarding the use of sensitive customer information obtained from an employer’s records and actually reaffirms the right of employers to protect “information their employer lawfully may conceal.”

What is refreshing about this case, though, is what the Board, in a two-to-one decision by Chairman Miscimarra and Member McFerran, with Member Pearce dissenting, did not do.  Namely, it did not attach an excessively broad interpretation to rules that, while theoretically susceptible to such a construction, were clearly not intended to have such an overreaching effect.  In an era of Board decisions that have ostensibly transformed the Lutheran Heritage “reasonably construe” standard into a micromanagement weapon wielded against employers to invalidate commonplace personnel policies based on uber speculative constructions untethered to industrial realities, this case may mark the apex of this aggressive push and the beginning of a more rational Board jurisprudence.  The decision returned focus on the original intent of Lutheran Heritage.  That is, rules will only be held to per se violate employees’ rights under the Act if they explicitly restrict Section 7 rights and just because a rule could be interpreted that way does not mean it’s reasonable.

The Board reaffirmed that where a rule does not explicitly restrict Section 7 rights, it will only be found to violate the Act if it can be shown that “(1) employees would reasonably construe the language [of the rule] to prohibit Section 7 activity; (2) the rule was promulgated in response to union activity, or (3) the rule has been applied to restrict the exercise of Section 7 rights.”

Board Finds That Employees Have No Right to Use Customer Data Acquired from Employer’s Records

At issue in this case were three rules confidentiality rules. One restricted the use of “Confidential Information,” which was defined to include “social security numbers or credit card numbers – in short, any information, which if known outside the Company could harm the Company or its business partners, customers or employees or allow someone to benefit from having this information before it is publicly known.”  The other two prohibited the disclosure of “personal data,” including customers’ “names, home and office contact information, social security numbers, drivers’ license number, account numbers and other similar data.”

The ALJ found that these rules unlawfully restricted employees’ Section 7 right to communicate with customers about their work-related concerns. The Board reversed the ALJ on the grounds that the rules only prohibited employees’ use or disclosure of sensitive data (i.e., customers’ social security and/or credit card numbers) or information obtained from the employer’s own confidential records. While the Board reaffirmed the proposition that “employees indisputably have a Section 7 right to concertedly appeal to their employer’s customers for their support in a labor dispute,” the Board held that this right did not usurp their employer’s right to protect and prevent the disclosure of “information their employer lawfully may conceal.” Neither of the Board’s justifications is particularly controversial – the Board has long recognized that employees have no right to use sensitive data or information drawn from the employer’s confidential records.

What is also notable, though, is that the majority rejected the much broader construction advocated by Member Pearce in his dissent, which would have expanded the scope of these rules beyond their apparent lawful parameters, because such a construction, while possible, was not reasonable.

Board Rejects Unreasonable Construction That Parses Out Certain Language from Entire Policy

First, the dissent argued that, as defined, “Confidential Information” would encompass customer contact information because such data could certainly benefit outside entities and/or its disclosure could harm the Company.  The Board majority rejected this contention on contextual grounds because the language attacked by the dissent was preceded by an exemplary list of sensitive personal and proprietary data.  These contextual elucidations, the majority reasoned, effectively precluded employees from reasonably interpreting the prohibition as embracing benign customer data such as names and addresses.  The majority emphasized that just because a rule may be susceptible to a particular construction does not make that construction reasonable.

Board Rejects Speculative Scenario Not Grounded In Evidence

Second, Member Pearce’s dissent argued that an employer cannot restrict the use of customer information maintained in files the employer designates as “confidential” because this information is likely available to all employees in the normal course of their employment duties.  The majority rejected this on two grounds.  First, they pointed out that the Act does not protect employees’ use of information drawn from an employer’s records merely because employees have access to it as part of their duties.  Second, “there is…no evidence in this case that the Respondent’s customer contact information was available to ‘all employees’ as the dissent contends, much less that it was used by them in the course of their normal employment duties…Our colleague’s unsupported speculation as to the Respondent’s ‘likely’ practices cannot substitute for evidence not in the record.”

In recent years, employers have reeled from the Board’s frequent unwillingness to acknowledge the reasonable and obvious intent of ordinary workplace rules and to instead concoct speculative scenarios out of whole cloth to justify finding such policies violative of the Act.  Chairman Miscimarra has long argued that this increasingly frequent approach contradicts the true intent of the Lutheran Heritage “reasonably construe” standard and has imposed impossible burdens on employers trying to craft lawful policies that protect their legitimate business interests.  Chairman Miscimarra has continuously advocated for the Board to repeal and replace the Lutheran Heritage standard because this standard is inherently susceptible to widely varying application and does little to promote the certainty and predictability employers need when promulgating workplace policies.  While the majority in Macy’s did not adopt Chairman Miscimarra’s proposed replacement, Member McFerran did agree to reject the ALJ’s interpretation of the rules and policies in question based on the constrained parsing and overreach that dominated the Obama Board’s application of the “reasonably construe”  standard.

With newly sworn in Member Marvin Kaplan and likely soon to be confirmed William Emanual, in September Chairman Miscimarra will have the first Republican majority of the Decade. However, with Chairman Miscimarra’s announced intention not to seek a second term, he will only have a couple of months in which to lead a newly construed Board in its move to the new standards and tests he has been advocating.

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.

As we recently reported, Dish Network, LLC unwittingly fell into the trap of a stipulated record, which proved fatal to its defense of a confidentiality admonishment issued to a suspended employee. The stipulated record in Dish Network, LLC did not set forth any business justifications for the confidentiality admonishment – an indispensable element in proving the lawfulness of such orders. Dish Network endeavored to cure this deficiency in its post-hearing brief, but the Board rejected its belated effort, in part, because the stipulated record was silent on this issue. This case served as a reminder that employers should exercise extreme caution before submitting to a stipulated record and voluntarily curbing their ability to proffer contextual evidence at a hearing to justify its workplace rules.

The Majority in Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. Holds That an Employer Has the Right to Present Contextual Evidence at a Hearing Which Might Justify a Facially Overbroad Rule

In Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc., the Board recently reaffirmed employers’ rights to present contextual evidence at a hearing when defending workplace policies and rules. In this case, the General Counsel challenged Mercedes-Benz’s rule banning cameras and video recording devices in its vehicle manufacturing plant without prior authorization. The General Counsel argued this rule was facially unlawful because it banned all recordings – with no exception for protected concerted activity – and filed a motion for summary judgment.

Mercedes-Benz defended the motion by arguing that it must be permitted to present contextual evidence at a hearing. Mercedes-Benz asserted that the rule not only furthers its legitimate business interests – including the protection of proprietary and confidential information, the maintenance of safety and production protocols and open communication – but, through “candid communication between employees and managers at daily meetings,” employees also understood that the rule was not intended to curtail protected concerted activity. Without a hearing, Mercedes-Benz would be deprived of the opportunity to establish these crucial contextual details.

The majority, comprised of Chairman Philip A. Miscimarra and Member Lauren McFerran, agreed. In a rather terse footnote, the majority explained its reasoning:

In previous decisions implicating similar rules, the Board has permitted employers to adduce evidence regarding asserted business justifications and about whether the rules were communicated or applied in a manner that clearly conveyed an intent to permit protected activity. [Citations] Because the Respondent has raised similar arguments here, we give the Respondent the same opportunity to adduce evidence at a hearing.

The Dissent Argues That a Facially Overbroad Rule Obviates the Need for a Hearing

Member Mark Gaston Pearce dissented. Pearce argued that Mercedes-Benz’s “weak” contextual argument did not warrant a hearing because “[t]he Board has consistently held that the mere maintenance of an overbroad rule such as the rule here tends to impermissibly chill employee expression.” Pearce also dismissed Mercedes-Benz’s purported justifications. First, Pearce explained that Mercedes-Benz’s “asserted business interests are inadequate because the rule…is not tailored to address only those concerns and to exclude Section 7 activity.” Second, Pearce attacked Mercedes-Benz’s proffering of its “open communications” to employees which purportedly conveyed that the rule did not preclude protected activity.

[Mercedes-Benz] argues only that it discussed unspecific business management issues with employees at the daily meetings. It does not assert that it instructed any – let alone all – employees that they could engage in protected recording in spite of the rule, as would be required to effective clarify the rule’s scope.

Help to Employers Asserting Their Rights to Defend Their Workplace Rules

The General Counsel often leverages the threat of a summary judgment motion to pressure employers into stipulating to the facts of a case challenging its workplace rules. Employers should avoid submitting to this pressure and voluntarily relinquishing their right to present an evidence-based, full defense. This decision gives employers a useful tool when asserting its right to present a full and comprehensive defense in the face of such pressure from the General Counsel.

In recent years, the Obama Board has adopted some extreme views on Section 7 rights, which has pushed its jurisdiction into uncharted territories and left non-unionized employers vulnerable to attack. Two of the most notable examples are (1) Murphy Oil U.S.A., Inc. and D.R. Horton, Inc., in which the Board invalidated arbitration agreements with class action waivers and effectively ignored a mountain of legal precedent to the contrary, including the Supreme Court’s repeated affirmations of such agreements and the Board’s own longstanding jurisprudence and (2) Banner Health System, in which the Board deemed routine confidentiality admonishments given in workplace investigations unlawful, brushing aside employer concerns about protecting the integrity of such investigations. These decisions left both unionized and non-unionized employers reeling from the Board’s unprecedented expansion of Section 7 rights.

The Board’s recent decision in Dish Network, LLC is not such a case. Dish Network, LLC merely reinforces established rules that long predate the Obama Board, which is why Acting Chairman Philip Miscimarra, who has consistently objected to the Obama Board’s extraordinary augmentation of Section 7 rights, concurred with the majority. Nevertheless, although its holding is not particularly groundbreaking, Dish Network, LLC does contain some important lessons for employers – ones that would need to be adhered to even under a Trump Board.

The Board Finds That Dish Network Interfered with Employees’ Section 7 Rights

In Dish Network, LLC, the Board found that Dish Network unlawfully interfered with employees’ Section 7 rights by maintaining an overly broad arbitration agreement and instructing an employee to maintain confidentiality and not to discuss his suspension with his co-workers. These findings, however, were not based on the class action waiver theories of Murphy Oil or the investigation rules of Banner Health System. Rather, they dealt with established protections likely to be enforced through a Trump administration.

Arbitration Agreements Must Allow Employees to File NLRB Charges

The arbitration agreement – which broadly applied to “any claim, controversy and/or dispute between [an employee and Dish Network], arising out of and/or in any way related to Employee’s application for employment and/or termination of employment” – was deemed unlawful because “employees would reasonably construe it to prohibit filing Board charges or otherwise accessing the Board’s processes.” Policies that require the arbitration of all disputes (including NLRB charges) relating to an employee’s employment have been considered violations of the Act since 2006, when the Bush-era Board rendered its decision in U-Haul Co. of California, 347 NLRB 375 (2006).

Employees Cannot Be Told to Keep Disciplinary Actions or Complaints Confidential

The Board also found that Dish Network violated the Act when it instructed an employee not to discuss his suspension with his co-workers. The Act protects employees’ rights to discuss their terms and conditions of employment, including their disciplines and complaints, and, absent a legitimate and substantial business justification that outweighs the employee’s Section 7 rights, rules requiring confidentiality about such matters have long been held unlawful by the Board.   The Board used a similar reasoning to find that the arbitration agreement’s confidentiality provision independently violated the Act because it prohibited employees from discussing “all arbitration proceedings, including but not limited to hearings, discovery, settlements, and awards.”

Lessons Learned From Dish Network, LLC

Although the Board in Dish Network, LLC merely enforced rules established long before the Obama Board, it does serve as a cautionary tale for employers. First, this case acts as a stark reminder that even large, sophisticated employers can run afoul of established NLRB precedent if they do not diligently review and monitor their policies for compliance with rules established by the Board. This is particularly true for non-unionized employers, who may not be as cognizant of or familiar with the Board’s ever evolving rules. Second, employers should never agree to a stipulated record when they are defending claims before the Board, as Dish Network did in this case. Here, the stipulated record contained no justification for the confidentiality admonishment to the suspended employee, which is an indispensable part of proving the lawfulness of such an order. Dish Network tried to cure this deficiency by proffering a justification in its brief, but the Board did not accept it because “the stipulation of facts [was] silent about the existence of any such concern.”

In yet another decision that exhibits the current Board’s overreaching and expansive view of its jurisdiction, the Board recently ruled that nurses who supervise and assign other hospital staff are not statutory supervisors.

A Position Expressly Created to be Supervisory is Not Supervisory, According to the Board

In 2016, Lakewood Health Center (“Lakewood”) restructured its staffing system and replaced charge nurses with a newly created position, Patient Care Coordinator (“PCC”). According to the uncontradicted testimony of Lakewood Vice-President of Patient Care Danielle Abel, the hospital created this new position for one specific reason – “to ensure accountability for shift-by-shift work flow of the department….in addition to supervising the employees on their shift.” According to the job description, a PCC “provides overall supervision of staff and patient care,” is “responsible for daily nursing assignments,” and “retains overall accountability for the work flow for their shift, and remains accountable if duties are delegated to another qualified staff member.” Abel testified, without contradiction, that PCCs must assess the patient’s needs and the nurses’ skills when assigning nurses to patient care tasks and are accountable for the nurses’ performance.  The undisputed evidence further showed that PCCs were the highest ranking authority present evenings, nights and weekends and, for the majority of the time, the only person present with the authority to assign and direct nurses.  The Minnesota Nurses Association filed an election petition asserting that the PCCs should be included in the bargaining unit, thereby adding one more dues-paying classification to the potential bargaining unit.

In a terse one-page decision, the Board characterized the undisputed evidence as vague and conclusory and found that Lakewood failed to provide tangible examples demonstrating the PCCs’ supervisory authority. Although Abel testified that PCCs were accountable for assigning and supervising nurses, the Board dismissed her testimony as “simply a conclusion without evidentiary value.”  The Board likewise discounted Abel’s testimony that PCCs exercise independent judgment when assigning nurses because no one testified that the nurses have differing levels of skill and ability and, for most of the shifts in evidence, there was only one nurse available, stating that independent judgment cannot be established if there is “only one obvious choice.”

Miscimarra’s Scathing Dissent Exposes the Flaws in the Board’s Decision

Board member Miscimarra’s dissent harshly rebuked the majority’s decision as abstract, thinly supported and inconsistent with the undisputed evidence. Miscimarra noted that both the PCC job description and Abel’s testimony established, without contradiction, that PCCs were accountable for assigning and responsibly directing subordinate nurses.  In fact, according to Abel’s unrefuted testimony, the very reason that Lakewood created this new position was to impose accountability for patient care and staffing issues on a single person.  Miscimarra strongly criticized the majority for “disregard[ing] unrebutted evidence merely because it could have been stronger, more detailed, or supported by more specific examples,” particularly given that the PCC position was created a mere four months prior to the hearing.  He also noted that the Board apparently and unreasonably wanted specific testimony “to establish the commonsense fact that some employees are more skilled than others” and chastised the majority for ignoring the practical reality that the PCC is often the highest ranking person present at Lakewood, explaining that “[s]omeone has to be in charge at this facility at all times.”  Miscimarra ended his dissent with a biting, but particularly apt, reproach that “the finding that PCCs are not supervisors under Section 2(11) provides yet another illustration of the principle that ‘common sense’ is not so common.”

Employers Must Be Prepared

This decision stands as a stark reminder that employers must be prepared with documentation, examples and other specific evidence supporting supervisory determinations to combat the hostile and skeptical review of the current Board. This decision also signals that 2017 will be no different than 2016 for the Board – it will continue to issue decisions that assail employer’s rights and bolster its relevancy even when it flies in the face of common sense and basic workplace practicalities.

As we previously reported, the ambush election rules implemented by the National Labor Relations Board (“Board”) last year tilted the scales of union elections in labor’s favor by expediting the election process and eliminating many of the steps employers have relied upon to protect their rights and those of employees who may not want a union. We warned that in addition to rapidly expediting election timeframe, the regulations were full of technical and burdensome procedural mandates on employers.  The Board further emphasized the pro-union impact of these requirements in a Decision last week when it overturned the results of an election that a union overwhelming lost based on a hyper-technicality.  Even though there was no prejudice to the union, the Board gave the union another bite at the apple despite the employees’ resounding rejection of union representation; effectively denying the employees their voice and imposing even more burdens on the employer.

New Regulations require service of Excelsior List on union

Section 102.62(d) of the Board’s New Rules and Regulations provides that an employer “shall provide to the regional director and the parties…a list of the full names [and other information] of all eligible voters… within 2 business days after the approval” of the Stipulated Election Agreement. This list of eligible voters is commonly referred to as an “Excelsior list.”   Section 102.62(d) further provides that the Employer’s failure to follow these procedural mandates “shall be grounds for setting aside the election whenever proper and timely objections are filed.”

The Petition and Election at issue

On Thursday, March 3, 2016, URS Federal Services, Inc. (“Employer”) and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Works, District Lodge 725 (“Union”) entered into a Stipulated Election Agreement. The Employer filed the list of eligible voters, commonly referred to as an “Excelsior list,” with the Region on Saturday, March 5, but failed to serve the list on the Union.  While the Board’s Decision noted the Employer never offered any explanation for its oversight, the fact is that under the prior regulations an employer need only file the list with the Region; the requirement to serve the union is new.  While the Employer did not directly send it, the Region forwarded the list to the Union on Monday, March 7, thus the Union timely received the list within two business days of the approval of the Stipulated Election Agreement.

The Union lost the election 91 to 54. After its crushing defeat, the Union filed objections, seeking to overturn the election because of the Employer’s deficient service, even though it had timely received the list and never complained of service issue before.

Regional Director finds no harm, no foul

The Acting Regional Director for Region 20 acknowledged that the Employer failed to serve the Union, but declined to set the election aside because the Union had suffered no prejudice since it received the list within two business days of the approval of the Stipulated Election Agreement as required by the Election Rules. The Regional Director explained that “[t]o hold otherwise would exalt form over substance.”  Relying on well-established Board precedent, the Regional Director also concluded that the employer’s technical violation did not frustrate the purpose of the Excelsior rule, which was to ensure that employees are provided a “full opportunity to be informed of the arguments concerning representation.” Bon Appetit Management Co., 334 NLRB 1042, 1043 (2001).

Board puts form over substance to favor Union

The Board rejected the Regional Director’s decision, reasoning that “[t]o allow parties to ignore the service requirements set forth in Section 102.62(d) without any explanation or excuse would undermine the purpose of those provisions.” The Board never articulated what purpose it was referring to, other than to insinuate that strict enforcement was necessary to ensure “all parties take their obligations seriously under the amended Rules.”  (italics in original).  Notably, the primary purpose of the service requirements – to ensure employees are fully apprised of the arguments concerning representation – had not been undermined since the Union timely received the list from the Region.

Dissent detail Board’s pro-union hypocrisy

As dissenting Board Member Philip A. Miscimarra (“Miscimarra”) explained, the Board’s decision is troubling for several reasons. Not only does the holding elevate form over substance, but it contravenes longstanding precedent that the Board should not overturn election results lightly “unless presented with clear evidence that the results may not reflect the will of the voters.”  In furtherance of this principle, the Board has previously declined to overturn elections despite allegations of death threats or widespread voter fraud.  In stark contrast, the Board here accepted the Union’s contention that a “purely technical violation of a service requirement, timely cured by the Region, warrants overturning election results that overwhelmingly disfavored” the Union.

Equally, and perhaps more, concerning is that the Board has effectively created a double standard for unions and employers. In Brunswick Bowling Products, LLC, 364 NLRB No. 96 (2016), a decision issued a mere three months earlier, the Board unanimously upheld the Regional Director’s decision to excuse the union’s untimely service of its Statement of Position.  As Miscimarra aptly pointed out, although the Board has long tolerated minor deviations from the Excelsior list requirements, no such “history of leniency” exists with respect to the service requirements for Statements of Position.   Yet, when a union violated the historically inflexible service requirements for Statements of Position, the Board excused the union’s noncompliance, but refused to do the same for an employer who failed to comply with rules that have traditionally permitted slight deviations, “even though the service error could not have affected the election results because the Union received the voter list on the same day it would have received the list had no service error been committed.”

Employers are advised to continue to adhere to Obama Board’s Regulations and Decisions

During the last eight years, the Obama Board has overturned longstanding Board precedent and expanded the rights of unions far and wide. Many employers may anticipate some relief from the onerous burdens imposed by the Board during the last eight years as a new administration comes to DC.  However, this case is a sober reminder that the Board intends to enforce the rules it has promulgated during the last eight years, and employers cannot afford to become lax in their obligations under these rules and must remember the Decisions rendered remain the standards to which they will be held.