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NLRB holds hotel owner REIT liable as a “statutory employer” for otherwise lawful lawsuit against union

Companies that own properties, such as hotels, may find themselves being damaged by the activities of unions who represent or seek to represent workers on the property, even workers who are employed by other companies. Such property owners may have legal rights at-issue and may sue unions and workers for violation of those rights. However, in response, unions and workers can file charges at the NLRB alleging that the real reason for the lawsuit was to retaliate for lawfully protected concerted activities.  That kind of NLRB charge is often called a Bill Johnson charge after the Supreme Court case recognizing the theory behind such a charge. The NLRB will permit a Bill Johnson charge even when it was proven in the underlying lawsuit that the union had violated the property owner’s rights. In a recent decision, the NLRB revisited multiple doctrines involved with that kind of scenario.

As an initial matter, the hotel owner argued before the NLRB that it was not subject to the National Labor Relations Act because it was not the “employer” of the workers, it had no collective bargaining relationship with their union. Indeed it was undisputed that the company, being a REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust), could not have employed the workers. The Board rejected the argument finding that the owner was a “statutory employer,” subject to the NLRA, along with the operator that actually employed the workers. First the Board held the owner had “a significant financial interest in the hotel’s profitability.” More importantly the operator was an affiliate of the hotel owner; it was owned by two of the same individuals who were owners in the REIT/property owner. And, perhaps most importantly to the Board, the REIT/property owner had a management agreement with the operator, in which it required the operator to consult with it over personnel matters, including wages.

Next, the Board rejected the hotel owner’s argument that it had a meritorious basis for its lawsuit against the union. The Board explained that whether the owner’s lawsuit against the union had a “reasonable basis” or not was simply not an issue in the case. The Board said that its “reasonable basis” test did not apply where, as here, the owner’s lawsuit had been directed specifically at activity protected by the NLRA. Here, the REIT/property owner’s lawsuit was, the Board held, entirely focused on the union’s boycott and related activities and speech by the Union and the workers. In so holding, the Board distinguished cases where the underlying lawsuit had targeted unprotected activities, such as defamatory statements made with malice, threats to the public order, or violence. Finally the Board held, that even if the “reasonable basis” test applied, it would not find the underlying lawsuit as having had a reasonable basis.

The decision is a sharp reminder that the NLRB may punish companies who exercise their otherwise lawful right to pursue litigation against a union. The Board’s ruling that a “reasonable basis” for the underlying lawsuit is not a defense arguably has increased the potential for future Bill Johnson charges.

Source: Ashford TRS Nickel, LLC, 366 NLRB No. 6 (2/1/18).

NLRB reverses Obama-era joint employer doctrine

Continuing its trend of reversing Obama-era NLRB decisions, the Trump Board has reversed one of the most controversial, the Board’s 2015 decision, Browning-Ferris Industries, in which the Board had held that mere proof of indirect or even potential control was sufficient to create a joint employer relationship. In this decision, Hy-Brand Industry Contracts, Ltd., the Board returns to requiring proof of actual control by the putative joint employer.

The impact of the Board’s decision on the pending legislation regarding the Joint Employer doctrine, previously reported in this blog is yet to be determined.

Source: Hy-Brand Industry Contractors, Ltd., 365 NLRB No. 156 (12/14/17).

NLRB General Counsel issues memo outlining likely reversals to Obama-era precedents

As previously reported here in this blog, the Trump Board (NLRB Boards are often colloquially but not pejoratively referred to by the President during their term) has begun overruling Obama-era precedents. Further reversals are anticipated. Curious which Obama-era NLRB precedents are likely to be reversed?

NLRB General Counsel Robb issued a controversial memo, shortlisting the cases he thinks most warrant attention. Indeed to call it a shortlist is a stretch. The General Counsel lists 26 categories, that range from employee access to email, to protections for section 7 rights, obscene and harassing behavior, off-duty access to property, the Weingarten right to have a representative present, rights of employees during contract negotiations, successorship and of course the joint employer doctrine, unilateral changes consistent with past practice, information requests during the processing of a grievance, dues check-offs, remedies, deferral, and, well, the list goes on, as will employers’ need to stay tuned to forthcoming developments at the Board.

Source: NLRB General Counsel Memorandum GC 18-02.

House passes Joint Employer bill

In previous posts, this blog has reported on legislative efforts to limit the NLRB’s joint employer approach. The House has voted to pass its bill, HB 3441, which now proceeds to the Senate, where supporters will need to find at least 8 Democrats to overcome anticipated filibuster.

Source: E:\BILLS\H3441.RH

Joint Employer bill moves forward, towards an unclear future

The House Education and the Workforce Committee approved the Save Local Business Act (H.R.3441) moving it forward towards a potential floor vote before the House. As explained in a previous post, the Bill will reverse the NLRB’s 2015 joint employer standard. No sister bill has been introduced in the Senate, and it is unclear whether such a bill could muster sufficient votes to withstand a filibuster in the Senate.

Source: H.R.3441 – 115th Congress (2017-2018): Save Local Business Act | Congress.gov | Library of Congress

Congress Takes Shot at Browning-Farris – Law Week Colorado

Interested in reading Bill Berger‘s thoughts about Congress’ efforts to reverse Obama-era expansions of the Joint Employer doctrine, especially H.R. 3441 (which if passed would be the Save Local Business Act)? Check out the August 7, 2017 issue of Law Week Colorado. If passed, the Act would tighten the application of the Joint Employer doctrine (back) to requiring evidence of actual control by the purported joint employer in cases involving the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Source: Congress Takes Shot at Browning-Farris – Law Week Colorado

Trouble for the NLRB’s joint employer doctrine? 

The NLRB famously expanded its joint employer doctrine in its 2015 Browning-Ferris decision. There, the Board effectively eliminated the requirement that a company have actual control to be a joint employer, in other words, it eliminated its decades old “direct and immediate” control requirement. Instead it can be enough now — at least according to the Board — if the company has “reserved” some form of control, that isn’t exercised, even if “indirect.” The Board’s ruling in Browning-Ferris is currently on appeal at the DC Circuit.

Unwilling to wait for a decision, Congress is considering a House Bill, the Save Local Business Act, that would jettison the NLRB’s “reserved” or “indirect” standard and reinstate the “direct and immediate” standard, not only for purposes of the NLRA (the federal labor law governing union relatioins) but also the FLSA (the federal wage-hour law).

Here the DC Circuit considered a slightly different aspect of the NLRB’s new joint employer doctrine (its “share or codetermine” standard). While the DC Circuit went out of its way to say it was expressing no opinion on the Browning-Ferris issue (“direct and immediate”), it held the Board had improperly laxened its “share or codetermine” caselaw, reversed and remanded the case to the Board to reconsider.

Source: NLRB v. CNN Am. Inc.

IRS outlines strict rules for PEOs that handle federal employment tax withholdings, reporting and payment for companies

PEOs (Professional Employer Organizations have become an attractive alternative for many companies to administering their own payroll and benefits systems. Many PEOs also handle routine HR functions. The PEO effectively hires the company’s workers and becomes their employer of record.

The IRS has issued a new set of rules that tighten up on a PEO’s ability to become and stay certified (a “CPEO,” Certified Professional Employer Organization).

Companies utilizing PEOs should consider requiring, as part of their contract with the PEO, that the PEO be and remain a CPEO.

The IRS guidance is Revenue Procedure 2017-14.