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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).

Google memo litigation continues, on two fronts

As previously reported on this blog, the NLRB recently cleared Google of charges that it had allegedly violated Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act by discharging the author of a controversial memo that attempted to explain his view that men are biologically more fit to be engineers than women. The NLRB held that, while some aspects of his memo might have been protected under Section 7 — a part of the NLRA that applies to both unionized and non-unionized workplaces — there were parts that stereotyped women and warranted Google’s decision to “nip in the bud” (quoting the NLRB General Counsel) his sexist communication.

The NLRB General Counsel’s decision, though, doesn’t end the litigation. There are now at least two separate lawsuits on-going: One by the memo’s author, James Damore, and another by a critic of Damore’s views, Tim Chevalier.

Both are former employees, terminated by Google for their speech involving Damore’s memo. In his memo, Damore advocated that Google had a culture of discrimination against white men and conservatatives, despite his view that men were in fact biologically better fit to be engineers at the highest level of the tech industry. In contrast Chevalier advocated verbally, through conduct, by email, on social media and on Google’s internal systems, that the Damore memo was “misogynistic,” that it was hostile to protected classes including gender, sex and race, and that it reflected, he alleged, a larger culture of hostility, including bullying, at Google on those same bases.

Damore’s lawsuit includes allegations, under California’s anti-discrimination laws, that Google discriminates against conservatives, Caucasians and men. Damore seeks to represent a class of such individuals against Google.

Chevalier’s lawsuit, also filed under California state law, asserts that he too was terminated for his political speech, including his activities to oppose not only Damore’s memo but also the Trump Administration’s politics and to protect the rights of minorities and women and rights associated with gender preference and sexual orientation. Also, Chevalier, a transgendered man, alleges his termination was linked to his efforts to protect related to sexual orientation and gender preference.

Both complaints are lengthy and warrant additional review by interested readers. Those are just some of their allegations. The merits of Mr. Damore and Mr. Chevalier’s complaints will be litigated, but the filing of their lawsuits illustrates how labor laws like the NLRA interact with employment laws like those at-issue in these lawsuits. An employer can comply with one set of laws and run afoul of another.

Sources: Duvalier complaint; Chevalier complaint.

NLRB clears Google, signals more employer-respectful approach to discipline of workplace misconduct

In a shift from recent NLRB decisions holding employers liable under the National Labor Relations Act’s Section 7 for disciplining employee misconduct that is offensive, disrespectful and harassing, the NLRB General Counsel recently cleared Google of charges that, by disciplining an employee for having written an offensive memo, it had somehow violated the Act.

Section 7 is a part of the National Labor Relations Act that applies to both unionized and non-unionized workforces, so this decision is of equal interest to companies without unions as to companies with unions representing their workforces.

In this case, Google’s employee famously wrote a memo that sought to explain why men received more favorable treatment than women in Google’s high tech workplace. The memo was considered by many to be highly offensive and received substantial national press. Included in his memo were stereotyping comments about women, such that women are more prone to “neuroticism” and therefore less able to work in a stressful environment and that more men score in the “top of the curve” than women.

Although the employee “cloaked” his memo in “science,” especially biology, quoting the NLRB, the Board’s General Counsel refused to engage on the so-called science, instead finding that the stereotyping comments were offensive and specifically offensive in a gender-specific manner, implicating the nation’s laws against sex discrimination. The Board’s General Counsel noted that the memo triggered internal complaints of sexual harassment and multiple female engineering candidates withdrew their applications.

The Board’s General Counsel also refused to condone the parts of the memo that may have been protected under Section 7, which protects an employee’s efforts to further his workplace’s wages, hours and working conditions.

(W)hile much of the Charging Party’s memorandum was likely protected, the statements regarding biological differences between the sexes were so harmful, discriminatory, and disruptive as to be unprotected.

In reaching that conclusion, the Board’s General Counsel noted that Google had drafted the employee’s termination notice to expressly say he was not being let go for any lawful aspects of his memo, but rather specifically and only for “(a)dvancing gender stereotypes.”

Finally the Board rejected the argument that the memo was merely speech and that, as such, it alone may not have been a violation of the anti-discrimination laws.

(E)mployers must be able to “nip in the bud” the kinds of employee conduct that could lead to a “hostile workplace,” rather than waiting until an actionable hostile workplace has been created before taking action.

It is this “nip in the bud” comment that is mostly likely to be cited by future employers. Recognizing that an employer has the right to “nip in the bud” misconduct seems to be a reversal of recent Obama- era Board decisions.

Source: NLRB Advice Memorandum, case no. 32-CA-205351 (1/16/18).

NLRB likely to rescind Obama-era expedited election rules

In a continuing trend of reversing Obama-era precedents, the Trump Board has signaled it will soon be rescinding the prior administration’s 2014 election rules. Those rules govern the election for (or against) unions to be recognized as a group of workers’ exclusive bargaining agent. The Obama-era rules greatly expedited the timeline for such an election and included a number of substantive changes that many commentators contend infringe on worker rights and employer rights. These controversial rules are known as — depending on the speaker’s perspective — the “expedited” or “ambush” or “quickie” election rules.

The NLRB posted a Request for Information on its website and in the Federal Register, December 14, 2017, inviting comment on three questions involving the rules:

  1. Should the 2014 Election Rule be retained without change?
  2. Should the 2014 Election Rule be retained with modifications? If so, what should be modified?
  3. Should the 2014 Election Rule be rescinded? If so, should the Board revert to the Representation Election Regulations that were in effect prior to the 2014 Election Rule’s adoption, or should the Board make changes to the prior Representation Election Regulations? If the Board should make changes to the prior Representation Election Regulations, what should be changed?

The deadline for responses is February 12, 2018. Responses may be submitted at that website (limit 250 characters), where they will be posted immediately.

Source: NLRB Request for Information regarding expedited election rules.

 

NLRB reverses micro-unit rule

Continuing its trend of reversing Obama-era precedents, the NLRB has reversed 2011’s Specialty Healthcare, which had recognized the possibility of a union representing only a portion of a bargaining unit, i.e., a micro-unit. Micro-units were favored by unions when they felt they were able to persuade a majority of the smaller group to vote Yes for union representation, even though the union might not be successful in convincing the entire bargaining unit to so vote. It was seen as a way for the union to gain a foothold in an otherwise unreceptive workforce. In this case, the Board reversed Specialty Healthcare.

Source: PCC Structurals, Inc., 365 NLRB No. 160 (2017).

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).

Republican-majority NLRB begins overruling Obama-era precedents

As reported here, the Trump administration, earlier this year, completed nominations to the NLRB sufficient to constitute a Republican majority of the Board. As predicted, the new Republican-led Board has begun overruling Obama-era precedents.

The first case, UPMC, involves the Board’s procedural requirements for accepting settlement agreements. Historically an administrative law judge (ALJ) at the Board was authorized to accept settlement agreements if “reasonable” under a set of factors articulated in Independent Stave, 287 NLRB 740 (1987).

In 2016, the Obama Board (NLRB Boards are often colloquially and non-pejoratively referred to by the last name of the President at their time) rejected the Reasonableness standard, saying instead an ALJ was authorized to accept settlement agreements only if they provided a “full remedy” for all violations alleged in the complaint. United States Postal Service, 364 NLRB No. 116 (2016).

What’s the difference between the Reasonableness standard and the Full Remedy standard? The facts of this case, UPMC, illustrate. Here, a complaint was filed against UPMC and its affiliate, Presbyterian Shadyside, alleging violations committed by Presbyterian Shadyside. The allegations alleged that UPMC was liable as a joint employer for Presbyterian Shadyside’s violations. Presbyterian Shadyside negotiated a settlement in which it promised to fully remedy any violations; however, the settlement required the Board to dismiss the joint employer allegations against UPMC. Instead of agreeing to be held a joint employer, UPMC promised to guaranty Shadyside’s performance of the settlement.

The ALJ accepted the settlement, but the Board’s General Counsel and the Charging Party objected to how he did so, arguing that UPMC should have been required to admit to being a joint employer, instead of a mere guarantor, in order to provide a “full remedy.” The ALJ held, and in this case, the Board agreed that the settlement with UPMC being a guarantor provided the same effective relief and that it did so more quickly than continuing to litigate the joint employer issue.

UPMC’s remedial guarantee is as effective as a finding of single-employer status.  As noted above, when a parent company is found to be a single employer with its subsidiary, the parent company is liable for the subsidiary’s unfair labor practices to the same extent as the subsidiary. The practical aim of the General Counsel’s single-employer allegation in this matter, then, is to hold UPMC responsible for Presbyterian Shadyside’s unfair labor practices along with Presbyterian Shadyside.

In overruling the Obama Board’s “full remedy” standard, the Board gave a preview of how it will overrule other decisions in the coming months and years, saying the Obama-era case had “imposed an unacceptable constraint” and “was an ill-advised and counterproductive departure from longstanding precedent.”

Furthermore, we overrule Postal Service, and we agree with the dissenting views of Chairman (then-Member) Miscimarra in that case, who pointed out that Postal Service imposed an unacceptable constraint on the Board itself, which retained the right under prior law to review the reasonableness of any respondent’s offered settlement terms that were accepted by the judge. We believe the “full remedy” standard adopted by the Board in Postal Service was an ill-advised and counterproductive departure from longstanding precedent. As illustrated by the instant case, adhering to the Postal Service standard would predictably cause incalculable delay in resolving the alleged violations, while potentially jeopardizing the prospect of obtaining any remedy against UPMC. Today, we return to the Board’s prior practice of analyzing all settlement agreements, including consent settlement agreements, under the “reasonableness” standard set forth in Independent Stave, 287 NLRB 740 (1987)

While UPMC involves a relatively dry procedural issue, it foreshadows a wave of decisions by which the Trump Board will overrule a number Obama Board decisions.

Source: UPMC, 365 NLRB No. 153 (12/11/17).

Interested in my thoughts on the Gothamist shutdown?

Honored to be featured in Doug Chartier’s article about the recent Gothamist shutdown.

Source: Gothamist Shutdown Raises Questions – Law Week Colorado

NFL Players Association files NLRB charge

As anticipated, the NFL Players Association has filed a unfair labor practice (ULP) charge in the on-going protest-kneeling debate. The charge will now proceed to investigation by the NLRB.

 

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

Pre-Trump NLRB scores post-Trump win at D.C. Circuit

In 2011, the NLRB announced, in Specialty Healthcare, that a union can ask to represent only some of a company’s workers. This so-called “micro-unit” approach has been heavily criticized as permitting unions to cherry-pick a group of pro-union workers within a group of workers who otherwise would vote “No” on having a union. It has been seen as a way for a union to slide its nose into a group that would otherwise want nothing to do with that union. It has further been criticized as a bureaucratic change announced by the Board with no support in the language of the National Labor Relations Act and in direct contradiction of decades of precedent.

Despite that criticism, the D.C. Circuit recently held for the Board, ruling that the Board’s new “micro-unit” approach is within the existing language of the NLRA and was therefore a lawful approach available to the Board. Under this micro-unit approach, an employer can only defeat a union’s attempt — can only require that the vote be held among all the workers in a unit — by showing that the smaller group is “truly inappropriate” and specifically that the workers deserve a vote because they share “an overwhelming community of interest.”

The decision is most likely to face its next hurdle, which is likely to be an insurmountable hurdle, if and when a the next micro-unit case comes before the Board on review. Likely within the next few months, the Trump Administration will have seated its nominees to the Board. If a pre-Trump Board was able to reverse course and adopt micro-units, a post-Trump/Republican-majority Board is able and widely expected to reject micro-units and return Board law to pre-Specialty Healthcare.

Source: Rhino Northwest, LLC v. NLRB

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.

Second Circuit OK’s profanity in the workplace

In a controversial case, the Second Circuit affirmed the NLRB’s decision that profanity – profanity any reasonable employer would arguably not permit in its workplace – must be permitted in the workplace. This stunning decision was rendered under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which is a section of that law that applies to non-union as well as unionized employers. Section 7 permits employees to engage in speech to further their wages, hours and working conditions.

In this case, the speech was designed to solicit support for a union in its organizing campaign. An employee felt his supervisor spoke to him harshly, so, on a break at work, he used his phone to post on Facebook text that included saying that supervisor “is such a NASTY MOTHER F*CKER don’t know how to talk to people!!!!!! F*ck his mother and his entire f*cking family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!” (Asterisks added.) What most employers and management-side counsel would find so striking about this language is its combination of purely gratuitous profanity – the graphic cursing adds nothing to the message’s content – but its attack on the supervisor’s mother and “entire” family. Still, when the employee was discharged, and a charge filed at the NLRB, the Board and now the Second Circuit held against the company,

How could both the Second Circuit and the NLRB find this language not only acceptable but legally protected? One unusual fact in the case is perhaps significant and may limit this decision to this particular workplace: The court said that there was “widespread profanity in the workplace, including the words ‘f*ck’ and ‘mother*cker,’ among other expletives and racial slurs.” (Asterisks added.)

Because the profanity occurred in social media, the Second Circuit reiterated the NLRB’s multi-factor test for social media postings:

The “totality of the circumstances” test for evaluating an employee’s use of social media may consider the following factors: (1) any evidence of antiunion hostility; (2) whether the conduct was provoked; (3) whether the conduct was impulsive or deliberate; (4) the location of the conduct; (5) the subject matter of the conduct; (6) the nature of the content; (7) whether the employer considered similar content to be offensive; (8) whether the employer maintained a specific rule prohibiting the content at issue; and (9) whether the discipline imposed was typical for similar violations or proportionate to the offense. Pier Sixty, LLC, 2015 WL 1457688, at *3.

The Second Circuit’s conclusion suggests this case is limited to its unique facts, making it the “outer-bounds” (as the Second Circuit, itself, called the decision) of this seemingly already stretched reading of Section 7. The court described its own decisions, as follows:

In sum, Pier Sixty has failed to meet its burden of showing that Perez’s behavior was so egregious as to lose the protection of the NLRA under the Board’s “totality‐of‐the‐circumstances” test.   However, we note that this case seems to us to sit at the outer‐bounds of protected, union‐related comments, and any test for evaluating “opprobrious conduct” must be sufficiently sensitive to employers’ legitimate disciplinary interests, as we have previously cautioned.50 We have considered all of Pier Sixty’s objections to enforcement and have found them to be without merit.

The case was NLRB v. Pier Sixty, LLC (2nd Cir. 4/21/17).

DOL Persuader Rule blocked

The DOL’s persuader rule, which would have extended the longstanding persuader rules to cover attorneys providing legal advice, has been blocked by the courts. Whether it will survive numerous lawsuits, much less a Republican Congress and Trump Administration, is doubtful.

Nat’l Fed’n of Independent Bus. v. Perez , N.D. Tex., No. 16-cv-066, 11/16/16.

 

 

Supreme Court review over benefits liability likely in union jurisdictional disputes

Sometimes, companies sign collective bargaining agreements (CBA), not realizing that each promises the same work to different unions. In this case, the employer allegedly signed one CBA that promised forklift and skidster work to the Operating Engineers and another CBA that promised the same work to Laborers. This can create a jurisdictional dispute; in other words, it can lead the two unions to argue over the work.

Under section 10(k) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has authority to decide which union gets the work in a jurisdictional dispute.

In this 10(k) case, the Board decided that the Operating Engineers not the Laborers had the better claim to forklift and skidster work. Despite the Board’s ruling, the Laborers sued the company for benefits under its collective bargaining agreement. In effect, the Laborers argued that the Operating Engineers could have the work, but the company should have to pay benefits to both unions’ trust funds. The law that governs liability for benefits is the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The Laborers argued that the Board’s 10(k) authority only extends to determinations of which union has the better claim to the work under the NLRA, not to which union is entitled to benefits under ERISA.

The Circuit Courts are split on the issue. The Third, Ninth, District of Columbia and now Sixth Circuits hold that the Board’s 10(k) ruling governs the ERISA claim, meaning the losing union has no claim to the work under the NLRA or for benefit payments under ERISA. The Seventh Circuit has held otherwise.

The split in Circuit Courts foretells possible Supreme Court review, especially because, here, even as it joined the majority of other Circuits, the Sixth Circuit did so over a strong dissent.

Employers with multiple CBAs should carefully review the way each of their agreements describes covered work. Overlapping descriptions should be clarified.

The case was Orrand v. Hunt Construction Group, Inc., — F.3d — (6th Cir. 2017).

NLRB General Counsel appointment held invalid

The Supreme Court held that former NLRB General Counsel Lafe Solomon served in violation of the Federal Vacancies reform Act after his appointment by President Obama without Senate confirmation, from 1/5/11 until 10/29/13.

The decision puts at risk all bargaining units certified by the NLRB and all rulings on ULP charges, during that time.

The case was NLRB v. SW General, Inc., — U.S. — (3/21/17).