In footnotes to two recent unpublished NLRB decisions,  NLRB Chairman Marvin Kaplan, who was named to that role by the President following the December 16, 2017 conclusion of Philip Miscimarra’s term, and Member William Emanuel offered interested observers an indication of two additional areas of Board law that they believe warrant reconsideration once Mr. Miscimarra’s replacement is nominated and confirmed, and the Board returns to a 3-2 Republican majority.

While unpublished Board decisions “are not intended or appropriate for publication and are not binding precedent, except with respect to the parties in the specific case,” as in the two cases discussed below, can offer important insights into what Board members are thinking about significant matters, and therefore can give readers an idea what to expect when particular issues come before the Board in future cases. In this regard, they, like the General Counsel’s recent Memorandum on Mandatory Submissions to Advice, give meaningful guidance to employers and advocates.

The Board is Likely to Revisit and Move Away from Obama Era Holdings re Confidentiality in Settlement Agreements

During the past eight years, one of the signatures of the Obama Board was its effort to expand the application of the National Labor Relations Act’s relevance to non-union workplaces. One aspect of this was a series of Board decisions finding that when employers sought to include broad confidentiality provisions in private settlement and separation agreements with employees that restricted the employees’ ability to disclose the terms of such settlements to others, including employees, they were impermissibly restricting employees’ ability to act together with other employees concerning terms and conditions of employment.

In a footnote to a December 27, 2017 unpublished decision denying a motion for summary judgment in an unfair labor practice complaint issued against Baylor University School of Medicine, Chairman Kaplan and Member Emanuel wrote as follows:

Members Emanuel and Kaplan agree that there are genuine issues of material fact warranting a hearing and that the Respondent is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

However, they believe that, to the extent not already permitted under Board precedent, the legality of confidential severance agreements for former employees should be reconsidered

While the Baylor University decision does not answer the question of when and in what circumstances the Board will recognize an employer’s right to lawfully require confidentiality in settlement agreements and other agreements that where they would have been found to interfere with employees’ Section 7 rights, the tea leaves more than suggest a change in Board law as soon as the Board returns to five members and an appropriate case is before the new majority.

The Board is Likely to Change How It Interprets and Applies the Blocking Charge Rule

Another important area that Chairman Kaplan and Member Emanuel indicated they want to see the Board re-examine is a Board doctrine commonly referred to as the Blocking Charge Rule.

Under the Board’s 2014 Amended Election Rules, the NLRB holds that when an unfair labor practice charge is filed during the pendency of an representation petition, the Board will not conduct the election if the party that has filed the charge, typically the petitioning union, or in the case of a decertification petition, the incumbent union facing a vote to decertify it as the representative, if the charge alleges actions by the employer that the union claims prevent or interfere with a fair election. Many observers believe that such blocking charges are used tactically by unions that are concerned they face defeat at the polls.

Under the 2014 Amended Election Rules, it is quite easy for a union to use such a charge to block an election:

Section 103.20 of the final rule requires that a party wishing to block processing of the petition must file a request to block and simultaneously file a written offer of proof in support of its unfair labor practice charge. If the Region believes the charge precludes a question concerning representation and no request is filed, the Region may ask the Charging Party if they wish to request to block.  If so, the Charging Party should be informed that they must file a request to block and an offer of proof, including the names of witnesses who will testify in support of the charge and a summary of each witness’s anticipated testimony. In addition, the Charging Party must promptly make the witnesses available to the Region.

In a December 20, 2017 unpublished decision in a case involving a decertification petition filed by an employee of ADT, in which the incumbent union filed ULP charges, to prevent an election:

Member Kaplan agrees with the decision to deny review here. He notes, however, that, consistent with the Petitioner’s suggestion, he would consider revisiting the Board’s blocking charge policy in a future appropriate case. Member Emanuel agrees that the determination to hold the petition in abeyance in this case was permissible under the Board’s current blocking charge policy, but he believes that the policy should be changed. Specifically, he believes that an employee’s petition for an election should generally not be dismissed based on contested and unproven allegations of unfair labor practices.

One of the more interesting aspects of this decision and footnote is that both Chairman Kaplan and Member Emanuel, although not disagreeing with the Regional Director’s application of the rule in the case before them, each expressed their view that the Blocking Charge Rule, which is not a rule at all but rather a Board-created doctrine or policy “should be changed.”

May 14th marked the one-month anniversary of the effective date of the NLRB’s Amended Representation Election Rules (“amended rules”).  That day, the Regional Directors for NLRB Regions 2 (New York, NY), 22 (Newark, NJ), and 29 (Brooklyn, NY) discussed their offices’ experiences processing representation petitions filed since the amended rules took effect on April 14th.

With respect to the questions of how the amended rules are actually affecting representation petitions and elections, while one month may not be representative, the data to date does offer some insights that will be of interest to employers, unions, and practitioners.  Perhaps the most interesting fact is that in these three Regional Offices, there were NO hearings held on petitions filed since the amended rules took effect.  In every case, the parties entered into a stipulated election agreement or a consent agreement, or the union withdrew its petition. Out of a total of 32 petitions filed in these regions during the one-month period, eight went to an election and 24 were withdrawn without an election.

What is not clear at this point is how many of the petitions were withdrawn after employers filed Statements of Position challenging the proposed units as inappropriate.  Under the amended rules, if an employer contends that the petitioned-for unit is not appropriate and should include additional classifications and/or locations, the employer must provide both the Regional Office and the petitioning union with the names, classifications, work locations, and shifts of the employees whom the employer believes must be included in the unit. Once a union receives that employee data, it may very well choose to withdraw its petition and then expand its organizing to include the additional employees. It is foreseeable that, in at least some cases, unions may be filing petitions with the expectation that the units will be challenged, in order to get such valuable data.

With respect to the question of how quickly votes are taking place under the amended rules, Regional Directors Karen Fernbach (Region 2), David Leach (Region 22), and James Paulsen (Region 29) reported that the elections based on petitions filed after the amended rules took effect were scheduled for between 25 and 30 days from the petition date.  This data confirms the expectation that the amended rules would result in faster elections than under the long-standing rules that they replaced.  Under the former rules, elections typically took place between 36 and 42 days after the filing of a petition.

The Regional Directors also reviewed the procedures under the amended rules, which were recently summarized in General Counsel Memorandum 15-04 issued by the Board’s General Counsel Richard F. Griffin, Jr.  Under the amended rules, employers not only must post a notice informing employees of the filing of a petition within two days but also must provide the Board and the petitioning union with a list of the names and job titles/classifications of all employees in the petitioned-for unit and all other employees whom the employer believes should be included in the unit.

The fact that there have not been any hearings in these three Regional Offices in the first month of the amended rules is probably a reflection of the fact that the amended rules make it much harder for an employer to have a hearing. The Regional Directors confirmed the fact that employers that want to raise issues, whether about unit composition, supervisory status, or other issues, are generally being told that they may not call witnesses but rather should make offers of proof to establish a record and basis for future appeals and challenges to the Board’s findings.

The Regional Directors acknowledged that, even where employers wish to make offers of proof at pre-election representation hearings, hearing officers are under instructions not to burden the R case record with protracted offers of proof and not to allow parties to delay the hearing “unnecessarily.”  Further, the Regional Directors stated that they were under orders not to allow hearings to go on for too long or permit any post-hearing briefs.  All argument would have to be made orally at a hearing.

According to the three New York area Regional Directors, unless the employer has raised eligibility issues as to more than 20% of the total voter complement, all unit placement and eligibility issues will be reserved for the challenged ballot process at the election or for a post-election hearing.  Obviously, if the challenged ballots are not determinative, issues as to those voters will never be heard. While this benchmark is not included in the amended rules, it has been mentioned on a number of occasions by representatives of the NLRB at various training programs conducted for the labor and management bars throughout the country.  It appears that this 20% standard has now replaced the 10% threshold that the Board relied upon under the prior rules and procedures.

The employer’s Statement of Position must be filed and served on the union within seven days of the filing of the petition and not later than noon on the day before the hearing is scheduled. Any issues not so raised will be waived.

On Friday, May 15, the day after the Regional Directors spoke, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, D.C., heard argument on plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment in the lawsuit brought by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups challenging the validity of the amended rules under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). The hearing focused on the plaintiffs’ claims that the amended rules violate the NLRA and the Administrative Procedures Act. While it is generally not possible to predict from argument how the court will rule, Judge Jackson appeared skeptical that the plaintiffs had established that they were entitled to summary judgment at this stage, suggesting that the litigation is likely to continue.

The amended rules will present significant challenges for employers and their counsel.  More importantly, all of this will be layered onto the much shorter period between the petition and the actual voting, requiring employers to focus year round on appropriate practices and communications to their employees concerning the benefits of maintaining a non-union status.

We will continue to monitor and share data concerning the impact of the amended rules.