On Wednesday, the Senate narrowly confirmed John Ring, a management-side labor attorney from Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, to the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or the “Board”).  With this vote, Ring fills the last remaining open seat on the Board, which was previously held by former Chairman Philip Miscimarra.  Ring’s term will expire on December 16, 2022.  The confirmation vote of 50-48 was largely down party lines, with only two Democrats voting in favor of Ring’s confirmation.  The strong opposition from the Democrats is likely due to the perceived efforts of the Trump administration to install pro-business members to the Board.  Several prominent Democratic senators, including Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), made very critical statements about Ring ahead of the vote.

On Thursday April 12th, the President announced that he was naming Ring to serve as Chairman of the Board. That action does not require Senate confirmation.  Marvin Kaplan who was previously named Acting Chairman will continue as a Board member. The addition of Ring to the NLRB once again gives Republican-appointees a 3-2 majority, which likely means several Obama-era pro-labor rulings will be overturned in the coming months and years.  When the Republican appointees briefly had a 3-2 majority at the end of 2017, several Obama-era decisions were overturned, including setting forth a new standard to evaluate handbook rules and overturning the Obama Board’s decision in Specialty Health Care eliminating micro-units.  Notably, with Ring’s appointment, it is likely that the Board will again revisit the standards for determining joint-employer status. In its  December 2017 decision in Hy-Brand  the Board overturned the Browning Ferris Industries decision, which had adopted a more lenient standard for determining joint employer status, and returned to a requirement of “direct and immediate control.”  While Hy-Brand was recently rescinded, it is expected that the newly constituted Board will  likely consider the issue again in the near future.

We will continue to monitor and provide developments on the Hy-Brand and other notable NLRB decisions.

On February 26, 2018, in a unanimous decision by Chairman Marvin Kaplan and Members Mark Pearce and Lauren McFerren, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or the “Board”) reversed and vacated its December 2017 decision in Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, Ltd. (“Hy-Brand”), which had overruled the joint-employer standard set forth in the 2015 Browning-Ferris Industries (“Browning-Ferris”) decision. The decision followed the release of a finding that a potential conflict-of-interest had tainted the Board’s 3-2 vote. What this means, at least for the moment, is that the lower standard for determining joint-employer status in Browning-Ferris is the law once again.

What Is The Browning-Ferris Standard?

As we previously reported, under the Browning-Ferris standard, “[t]he Board may find that two or more entities are joint employers of a single work force if they are both employers within the meaning of the common law, and if they share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment.”  Under Browning-Ferris, the primary inquiry is whether the purported joint-employer possesses the actual or potential authority to exercise control over the primary employer’s employees, regardless of whether the company has in fact exercised such authority.  This standard is viewed as employee and union-friendly, and led to the issuance of complaints alleging joint-employer status in an increased number of circumstances.

What Did Hy-Brand Set As the Test for Joint-Employer Status?

Later, in Hy-Brand, as we noted, the Board rejected the Browning-Ferris standard and returned to a more employer-friendly standard, based on the common law test for determining whether an employer-employee relationship exists as a predicate to finding a joint-employer relationship and adding more than just the right to exercise control.  Under Hy-Brand, a finding of joint-employer status would require proof that putative joint employer entities have actually exercised joint control over essential employment terms (rather than merely having “reserved” the right to exercise control), the control must be “direct and immediate” (rather than indirect), and joint-employer status will not result from control that is “limited and routine.”  This decision had stopped at least some cases relying on Browning-Ferris in their tracks.

What Happens Next?

While Hy-Brand has been reversed for the time being, we expect the Board, once the Senate acts on President Trump’s nomination of John Ring to fill the seat vacated this past December by then Chairman Philip Miscimarra, to reinstate the joint-employment standard articulated in Hy-Brand or a similar standard.

As noted above, the reversal of Hy-Brand follows the ethics memo published by NLRB Inspector General David Berry finding that Member William Emanuel should have abstained from the decision in Hy-Brand because of the fact that the law firm of which he was a member was involved in the case.  There are a number of other cases in which similar conflict issues have arisen, also arguing that Member Emanuel should recuse himself.

Congress May Act

Separate and part from a future Board decision, as we noted in November, the House of Representatives passed the Save Local Business Act (H.R. 3441) which, if enacted, would amend the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act to establish a Hy-Brand-like direct control standard for joint employer liability.  The reversal of Hy-Brand may now put increased pressure on the Senate to pass the bill.

What Should Employers Do Now?

Employers and other parties with matters before the Board involving joint-employer issues now, whether in the context of unfair labor practice cases or representation cases, now will need to focus on both the Browning-Ferris standard and the Hy-Brand test to ensure that they preserve all arguments and issues recognizing the likelihood that sooner rather than later the Board will adopt a test that requires more than is required under Browning-Ferris to establish the existence of a joint-employer relationship, with all of the attendant responsibilities.  We will continue to follow this issue and report on developments.

In the months following Donald Trump’s inauguration, those interested in the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) waited anxiously for the new President to fill key positions that would allow the Board to reconsider many of the actions of the past eight years. Over the last six months, the Board has begun to revisit, and overrule, several union-friendly and pro-employee Obama-era Board decisions. The Board’s new General Counsel has also given clear guidance as to where else employers can expect to see his office pursue further changes in how the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or “Act”) will be interpreted and enforced.

In this Take 5, we offer an overview of key aspects of what the new Board has done to date, and what can be expected going forward:

  1. What to Look Out for This Year at the NLRB
  2. Hy-Brand Industrial Overrules Browning-Ferris and Sets New NLRB Standard for Determining Joint-Employer Status
  3. NLRB Ruling in The Boeing Co. Establishes New Standards Governing Employee Handbook Rules and Policies
  4. The Trump Board Signals a Return to Traditional Standards in Representation Cases
  5. As the NLRB Steps Back, Cities Step Forward

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF.

The White House has announced that John Ring, co-chair of the Labor & Employment Law practice at a management side law firm, is the President’s choice for the vacancy on the National Labor Relations Board created last month when Board Chairman Phillip Miscimarra completed his term on December 16, 2017. Mr. Ring’s nomination to the Board is subject to Senate confirmation. No date has been set for hearings on the nomination.

The Board is Now Split 2-2

Since Mr. Miscimarra’s departure from the Board, where he was part of a 3-2 Republican majority following the confirmation of Marvin Kaplan, who has now been named Chairman, and William Emanuel, the Board has been composed of 2 Republicans and 2 Democrats, Members Mark Pearce and Lauren McFerran, both appointed by President Obama.

When Mr. Ring is Confirmed A New Republican Majority is Expected to Continue to Revisit Obama Era Decisions Overruling Long Standing Precedents  

During December 2017, the Board issued a number of significant decisions, overruling Obama-era decisions including overturning Browning-Ferris Industries and returning to a more traditional test for determining whether two businesses are joint-employers, adopting new standards for determining whether facially neutral employer policies and handbooks unlawfully interfere with employees’ Section 7 rights, overturning  which opened the doors to organizing in so-called micro-units, and other decisions seen as tilting the Board’s administration and interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act in favor of unions.  Since Member Miscimarra’s departure however, the Board has been split between 2 Democrats and 2 Republicans, resulting in an inability to form a majority to reverse Obama era holdings.  Provided Mr. Ring is confirmed, the Board will once again return to a 3-2 Republican majority.

There Are a Significant Number of Important Issues the Board’s General Counsel Plans to Ask the Board to Reexamine Once Member Ring Is Confirmed and a Republican Majority Is in Place

In December, General Counsel Peter B. Robb issued GC Memorandum 18-02, Mandatory Submissions to Advice, identifying those issues that he had identified as ones the Board’s Regional Offices should refer to the Division of Advice in the Office of the General Counsel.  These include “cases that involve significant legal issues,” including “cases over the last eight years that overruled precedent and involved one or more dissents, cases involving issues that the Board has not decided, and any other cases that the Region believes will be of importance to the General Counsel.”

The Mandatory Submissions Memo identifies a broad swath of recent Board precedents and topics that must be submitted to Advice, where there is a good chance the new General Counsel will ask the Board to return to pre-Obama Board interpretations of the Act and practices.  These include:

  • Joint –Employer – Browning-Ferris Industries’ holding that joint-employer relationships can be found based on “evidence of indirect or potential control over the working conditions of another employer’s employees.
  • Use of Employer’s Email Systems for Union Activity– The Mandatory Submission Memo calls for the submission to Advice of all cases involving claims based on Purple Communications’ holding that “employees have a presumptive right to use their employer’s email systems to engage in Section 7 activities. The Memo also explains that the new General Counsel is effectively overruling prior Advice Memoranda in which his predecessor noted his initiative “to extend Purple Communications to other [employer owned] electronic systems,” such as the internet, phones and instant messaging systems that employees regularly use in the course of their work.
  • Cases In Which Policies in Employee Handbooks Were Found to Interfere With Section 7 Rights – The Mandatory Submissions Memo indicates the General Counsel will likely be asking the Board to reexamine a broad range of holdings in which policies and conduct standards contained in handbooks and work rules were found to interfere with employees Section 7 rights, in many cases in non-union workplaces. These will include cases finding prohibiting “’disrespectful’ conduct,’ rules prohibiting the use of cameras and recording devices in the workplace, and policies concerning confidentiality in investigations.
  • Cases Involving the Standard For Determining Whether Employees Would Find a Work Rule or Policy to Unlawfully Interfere With Section 7 Rights – Which Board Member Miscimarra – One of the areas in which (then) NLRB Chairman Philip Miscimarra most frequently disagreed with his colleagues on the Obama Board was over the Board’s use of the Lutheran Heritage test, which he repeatedly described as a test that “defies common sense.” Look for the new General Counsel to ask the Board to adopt the standard which (then) Chairman Miscimarra proposed in his now legendary dissent in William Beaumont Hospital.
  • Cases in Which The Obama Board Expanded the Definition of Concerted Activity For Mutual Aid and Protection – In cases such as Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market the Obama Board expanded the circumstances in which it would find an employee’s actions to be protected, holding that an employee’s actions involving a matter in which “only one employee had an immediate stake in the outcome to be protected.” Such cases must now be referred to Advice and it can be anticipated the General Counsel will ask the Board to reexamine.
  • Cases involving “Obscene, Vulgar or Other Highly Inappropriate Conduct”- The new General Counsel will be considering whether the Board went too far in holding in cases such as Pier Sixty, LLC that even where employees engaged in expletive-laden Facebook post – which hurled vulgar attacks at his manager, his manager’s mother and his family, the employee’s actions remained protected by the Act.

The Mandatory Submissions Memo also identifies each of the following as issues that must be submitted to Advice:

  • Work stoppages on employer premises;
  • The circumstances in which employers may restrict access to employer property at times when employees are off duty;
  • The recent expansion of Weingarten rights in the context of employer-mandated drug testing;
  • Employer obligations and rights with respect to wage increases during bargaining, where the increases are provided to unrepresented employees but not the employees whose wages and increases are being bargained;
  • Claims by unions that employers are successors by virtue of their hiring a predecessor’s employees as required by local laws;
  • The circumstances in which a new employer will be found to be a “perfectly clear successor” obligated to follow its predecessor’s terms and conditions rather than being free to set new terms and conditions for those it hires from a predecessor’s workforce;
  • Whether an employer must disclose and produce witness statements prior to arbitrations; and
  • Whether employers will be required to continue to honor contractual dues check off provisions after a collective bargaining agreement expires.

The New Majority Can Be Expected to Examine these and Other Questions

It is expected that once Mr. Ring is confirmed and the new majority is in place, the Board will be reconsidering existing precedents concerning these and other issues and looking at the 2014 Amended Election Rules adopted by the Obama Board

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.”

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.

Peter B. Robb, the newly sworn in General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board has issued a memorandum, Mandatory Submissions to Advice, GC Memo 18-02 (the “Mandatory Submissions Memo”), that offers clear information as to how he is likely to proceed in setting the agenda and priorities for the Office of the General Counsel which is “responsible for the investigation and prosecution of unfair labor practice cases and for the general supervision of the NLRB field offices in the processing of cases.” As we have previously noted, such Mandatory Submission memos offer a roadmap of the General Counsel’s priorities on cases and issues that he wants to get before the Board and often present a window into the General Counsel’s thinking about how he is likely to proceed.

“The Past Eight Years Have Seen Many Changes in Precedent”

In something of an understatement, reflecting on the activist Board of the Obama administration, the General Counsel observes that “the last eight years have seen many changes in precedent” from long standing Board holdings, “often with vigorous dissents.”   The Mandatory Submissions Memo identifies a number of the areas in which the Board moved in a more activist manner and identifies issues that the new General Counsel will seek to bring back before the Board.

All Cases Involving Significant Legal Issues Will Now Be Submitted to Advice

The Division of Advice, which is part of the Office of the General Counsel is charged with providing guidance to the Board’s Regional Offices “regarding difficult and novel issues arising in the processing of unfair labor practice charges, and coordinates the initiation and litigation of injunction proceedings in federal court under Section 10(j) and (l) of the National Labor Relations Act.”

Under the Memo, the General Counsel has directed that the following cases be submitted for guidance as cases “involving significant legal issues”:

  • “Cases that involve issues over the last eight years that overruled precedent and involved one or more dissents,”
  • “cases involving issues that the Board has not decided,” and
  • “any other cases that the Regional Offices “believe will be of importance to the General Counsel.”

While the Memo allows the Regional Offices to continue to issue complaints “where issuance is appropriate under current Board law,” the Memo directs the Regional Offices to seek guidance from Advice on how to present such issues to the Board in briefs to Administrative Law Judges and the Courts before filing, so that Advice can “provide appropriate guidance on how to present” or argue the issues.  In other words, Advice and the General Counsel may develop and pursue different legal theories and seek different outcomes and interpretations of the Act in such cases.

The General Counsel Will Not Be Re-Briefing Cases Already Before the Courts and the Board

Many of the most significant decisions of the Obama Board are already before the Supreme Court and the Courts of Appeal, either on applications by the Board for enforcement of its orders, or on requests by employers as respondents appealing from the Board’s decisions. These include cases like Browning-Ferris, the 2015 case in which the Board adopted a new and looser test for determining whether companies are joint employers, and Murphy Oil and D.R. Horton, in which the Board found that requiring employees to waive their rights to bring class claims in wage and hour and other lawsuits and to arbitrate rather than litigate in court, which are before the D.C. Circuit and the Supreme Court respectively.

According to the Mandatory Submissions Memo, “in order to avoid delay,” the General Counsel “will not be offering new views on cases pending in the courts, unless directed by the Board or courts.”

The Memo Identifies Specific Issues and Lines of Cases That Must be Submitted to Advice

The Mandatory Submissions Memo identifies a broad swath of recent Board precedents and topics that must be submitted to Advice, where there is a good chance the new General Counsel will ask the Board to return to pre-Obama Board interpretations of the Act and practices.  These include:

  • Joint –Employer – Browning-Ferris Industries’ holding that joint-employer relationships can be found based on “evidence of indirect or potential control over the working conditions of another employer’s employees.
  • Use of Employer’s Email Systems for Union Activity– The Mandatory Submission Memo calls for the submission to Advice of all cases involving claims based on Purple Communications’ holding that “employees have a presumptive right to use their employer’s email systems to engage in Section 7 activities. The Memo also explains that the new General Counsel is effectively overruling prior Advice Memoranda in which his predecessor noted his initiative “to extend Purple Communications to other [employer owned] electronic systems,” such as the internet, phones and instant messaging systems that employees regularly use in the course of their work.
  • Cases In Which Policies in Employee Handbooks Were Found to Interfere With Section 7 Rights – The Mandatory Submissions Memo indicates the General Counsel will likely be asking the Board to reexamine a broad range of holdings in which policies and conduct standards contained in handbooks and work rules were found to interfere with employees Section 7 rights, in many cases in non-union workplaces. These will include cases finding prohibiting “’disrespectful’ conduct,’ rules prohibiting the use of cameras and recording devices in the workplace, and policies concerning confidentiality in investigations.
  • Cases Involving the Standard For Determining Whether Employees Would Find a Work Rule or Policy to Unlawfully Interfere With Section 7 Rights – Which Board Member Miscimarra – One of the areas in which now NLRB Chairman Philip Miscimarra most frequently disagreed with his colleagues on the Obama Board was over the Board’s use of the Lutheran Heritage test, which he repeatedly described as a test that “defies common sense.” Look for the new General Counsel to ask the Board to adopt the standard which Chairman Miscimarra proposed in his now legendary dissent in William Beaumont Hospital.
  • Cases in Which The Obama Board Expanded the Definition of Concerted Activity For Mutual Aid and Protection In cases such as Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market the Obama Board expanded the circumstances in which it would find an employee’s actions to be protected, holding that an employee’s actions involving a matter in which “only one employee had an immediate stake in the outcome to be protected.” Such cases must now be referred to Advice and it can be anticipated the General Counsel will ask the Board to reexamine.
  • Cases involving “Obscene, Vulgar or Other Highly Inappropriate Conduct”- The new General Counsel will be considering whether the Board went too far in holding in cases such as Pier Sixty, LLC that even where employees engaged in expletive-laden Facebook post – which hurled vulgar attacks at his manager, his manager’s mother and his family, the employee’s actions remained protected by the Act.

The Mandatory Submissions Memo also identifies each of the following as issues that must be submitted to Advice:

  • Work stoppages on employer premises;
  • The circumstances in which employers may restrict access to employer property at times when employees are off duty;
  • The recent expansion of Weingarten rights in the context of employer-mandated drug testing;
  • Employer obligations and rights with respect to wage increases during bargaining, where the increases are provided to unrepresented employees but not the employees whose wages and increases are being bargained;
  • Claims by unions that employers are successors by virtue of their hiring a predecessor’s employees as required by local laws;
  • The circumstances in which a new employer will be found to be a “perfectly clear successor” obligated to follow its predecessor’s terms and conditions rather than being free to set new terms and conditions for those it hires from a predecessor’s workforce;
  • Whether an employer must disclose and produce witness statements prior to arbitrations; and
  • Whether employers will be required to continue to honor contractual dues check off provisions after a collective bargaining agreement expires.

The New General Counsel Will Be Looking at Recent Expansions of Remedies

One of the hallmarks of General Counsel Richard Griffin Jr.’s term was an attempt by the General Counsel to expand the range of remedies that could be granted in cases where unfair labor practices were found to have occurred. This was done both through administrative action and through arguments presented before the Board.  Such expanded or enhanced remedies included requiring employers to pay unions’ bargaining expenses, providing front pay to discriminates, reimbursing employees for job search and other expenses that had never before been reimbursable under the Act.  These matters too will be subject to review by Advice under the Mandatory Submissions Memo.

Deferral To Arbitration

The Mandatory Submissions Memo states that General Counsel Memorandum 12-01, issued on January 20, 2012, which laid out new standards to be followed by the Regional Offices for determining whether the Board would defer to an arbitrator’s award, is to be withdrawn and no longer followed. The Board’s website in fact already confirms that this memo and the standards it contained were withdrawn as of December 1, 2017.  While the Mandatory Submissions Memo does not expressly say so, it appears that the Regional Offices will now once again follow the Board’s longstanding Collyer deferral standards.

Graduate Students as Employees

Also withdrawn is General Counsel Memorandum 17-01, which addressed the prior General Counsel’s position on the question of whether graduate students and certain student athletes on scholarships should be treated as employees under the Act, as well as the question of whether faculty at religious affiliated universities and colleges teaching secular subjects would be able to organize and enjoy other protections of the Act.

There is Much More To Come

The above are only some of the most interesting areas covered in the Mandatory Submissions Memo.  With just over one week remaining before the conclusion of Chairman Miscimarra’s term on December 16th, observers are expecting a large number of cases that have been briefed before and considered by the Board to be decided. No doubt the decisions of the Republican majority Board will offer further indication of the direction the Board and the General Counsel will likely pursue.

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.

Kat PaternoFollowing on the heels first of the U.S. Supreme Court’s January 13, 2017 announcement that it granted certiorari in NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA, along with Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis (7th Circuit) and Ernst & Young, et al. v. Morris (9th Cir.), and then of President Trump’s January 26, 2017 appointment of Philip A. Miscimarra as Acting Chair of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”), there is yet another new development in the ongoing fight over the NLRB’s challenge of class action waivers in arbitration agreements.

Acting swiftly, on January 26, 2017, the same day that Miscimarra was appointed, the NLRB’s Office of the General Counsel (“General Counsel”), Division of Operations-Management, distributed to all NLRB Regional Directors, nationwide, Memorandum OM 17-11 (“Memo OM 17-11” or “Memo”), which provides guidance to Regions handling pending cases involving employment arbitration agreements prohibited by Murphy Oil, essentially protecting all active cases under the former Obama administration’s NLRB.

While citing to commitment to “judicial economy and avoiding undue litigation” while awaiting the Supreme Court’s review as the reason for the guidance Memo, the Memo effectively ensures active cases remain subject to the Obama-appointed General Counsel’s militant opposition to such arbitration agreements under its holding in Murphy Oil—before President Trump’s appointees take control.

Memo OM 17-11 provides specific guidance to Regional Directors regarding the handling of the varying scenarios relating to such agreements under Murphy Oil.  For instance, in cases where the Regions find merit that an employer is either maintaining and/or enforcing an arbitration agreement prohibited by Murphy Oil, the General Counsel in Memo OM 17-11 directs Regions to propose the parties enter into settlement agreements conditioned on the NLRB prevailing before the Supreme Court.

Perhaps most interesting is the broad phrasing used in Memo OM 17-11; it carefully avoids narrowing the issue taken under review by the Supreme Court as being “whether arbitration agreements that bar employees from pursuing work-related claims on a collective or class basis in any forum violates Section 8(a)(1) of the Act.” Glaringly absent from the issue is the hot topic term mandatory, which instead appears solely in a sentence toward the Memo’s end, which states:  “In situations involving opt in/opt out clauses in mandatory arbitration agreements or where it is argued that some other feature of these agreements renders them distinguishable from Murphy Oil, Regions are directed to hold such cases in abeyance.”

On whole, Memo OM 17-11 provides hope for employers. The General Counsel’s Office has, for the moment, temporarily plugged the holes in the Obama Administration Board’s reasoning for its Murphy Oil holding.  But it reveals that the General Counsel is aware that there are, indeed, holes worth questioning.