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Third Circuit reverses NLRB over facetious tweet

As noted in a previous post, the NLRB earlier held a company liable for its CEO’s personal tweet intended as an obvious joke. The NLRB had viewed as irrelevant the CEO’s and even the employees’ statements that the tweet was meant as a joke. On appeal, the Third Circuit, considering the CEO’s First Amendment rights, reversed the NLRB holding there was no evidence to support its finding that the tweet could have been interpreted as a threat by a reasonable employee, especially where two employees said they took it as a joke and the comment was made without any actual threatening action having been taken and without any history of labor-management tension.

For starters, FDRLST Media is a tiny media company. Its six employees (not including Domenech) are writers and editors. The tweet’s suggestion that these employees might be sent “back” to work in a “salt mine” is farcical. The image evoked—that of writers tapping away on laptops in dimly-lit mineshafts alongside salt deposits and workers swinging pickaxes—is as bizarre as it is comical. So from the words of the tweet alone, we cannot conclude that a reasonable FDRLST Media employee would view Domenech’s tweet as a
plausible threat of reprisal.

. . .

The National Labor Relations Act grants the National Labor Relations Board vast authority to investigate charges of unfair labor practices, even when charges are filed by parties who are not personally aggrieved by the alleged practice. But the Board’s authority to find an unfair labor practice is not unlimited. Here, the Board spent its resources investigating an online media company with seven employees because of a facetious and sarcastic tweet by the company’s executive officer. Because the Board lost the forest for the trees by failing to consider the tweet in context, it misconstrued a facetious remark as a true threat. We will accordingly grant FDRLST
Media’s petition, set aside the Board’s order, and deny the Board’s petition for enforcement.

Third Circuit rejects Uber’s ability to enforce arbitration agreement with its drivers

Applying the Supreme Court’s recent Oliveira decision, the Third Circuit held that Uber cannot enforce its arbitration agreement with drivers engaged in interstate commerce. In doing so, the Court held that the exception in federal law that prohibits arbitration agreements for drivers engaged in interstate commerce applies not only to drivers who transport goods but also drivers who transport services.

Source:  Singh v. Uber Technologies, Inc., — F.3d — (3rd Cir. 9/11/19).

Third Circuit expounds on class actions in wage claims

A class action is a way for one or more persons to sue on behalf of a voluminous group of similarly situated persons. The idea is that the claim may not be financially worthwhile for one or a few people to prosecute, but where many people have suffered the same wrong, it makes sense for them to litigate the claims all at once, just as it is more efficient for the courts and defendant.

Wage claims are often for relatively small amounts, when one considers only one plaintiff, but can be for huge amounts when prosecuted on behalf of a claim. Wage claims though aren’t technically called a class action. Wage claims are prosecuted under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which provides for “collective” actions; whereas, class actions are prosecuted under Rule 23 of the Rules of Civil Procedure.

What’s the difference between a class action and a collective action? Well, there aren’t many, but the few differences there are, are indeed significant. The biggest difference is conceptual and practical. In a class action, the judge declares a “class,” and members can opt out if they don’t wish to be part of the lawsuit. In a collective action (a FLSA wage claim), the judge declares the potential class, but members have to opt in to become part of the lawsuit.

There are other significant differences in terms of the procedures and standards court follow at the start of the case. Those differences can drive significant outcomes in terms of settlement strategies and litigation approaches.

Still, the differences can be as subtle as they are sometimes significant, triggering relatively frequent litigation in the courts. The Tenth Circuit has, for example, said, in a 2001 decision (Thiessen) that there is “little difference in the various approaches”  under Rule 23 for class actions versus FLSA for collective actions. However the Third Circuit, in a recent decision, Reinig v. RBS Citizens, N.A., held the differences, though often slight, are significant enough that an appeal involving the one did not give it jurisdiction to consider issues related to the other. The Third Circuit, therefore, declined to decide whether certification of a collective action under FLSA was appropriate, even though it did decide that certification of a class under Rule 23 was inappropriate. The court left the collective action certification for the lower court and later litigation.

In so ruling, the court did, though, hold that the class action Rule 23 certification — the issue on appeal before it — had been improper. The Court clarified that, in order to prove that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit alleging “off the clock” work was appropriate for class certification, Rule 23 required them to prove that they, and the requested class members, could all show that their rights were violated using the same evidence of liability. It was not sufficient to prove that they had all been wronged by the same employer, that they had all been shorted wages to which they should have been entitled, or even that they had all been shorted in the same way. Rule 23, the Third Circuit held, requires that they prove they, and the requested class, could establish their cases using common evidence.

As for the merits of their claim, the Third Circuit opined that, to prove an off-the-clock work claim, the plaintiffs would need to show they had worked off the clock, which constituted overtime, and that the employer had at least “constructive knowledge” of the same. The court did not explain what would constitute “constructive knowledge.”

To satisfy their wage-and-hour claims, Plaintiffs must show that: (1) pursuant to Citizens’ unwritten “policy-to-violate-the-policy,” the class MLOs performed overtime work for which they were not properly compensated; and (2) Citizens had actual or constructive knowledge of that policy and of the resulting uncompensated work.  See Kellar v. Summit Seating Inc., 664 F.3d 169, 177 (7th Cir. 2011) (citing Reich v. Dep’t of Conservation & Natural Res., 28 F.3d 1076, 1082 (11th Cir. 1994)); see generally Davis v. Abington Memorial Hosp., 765 F.3d 236, 240–41 (3d Cir. 2014).  Thus, to satisfy the predominance inquiry, Plaintiffs must demonstrate (1) that Citizens’ conduct was common as to all of the class members, i.e., that Plaintiffs’ managers were carrying out a “common mode” of conduct vis-à-vis the company’s internal “policy-to-violate-the-policy,” and (2) that Citizens had actual or constructive knowledge of this conduct.  See Sullivan, 667 F.3d at 299; Dukes, 564 U.S. at 358; see also Tyson Foods, Inc., 136 S. Ct. at 1046 (explaining that, although a plaintiff’s suit may raise “important questions common to all class members,” class certification is proper only if proof of the essential elements of the class members’ claims does not involve “person-specific inquiries into individual work time [that] predominate over the common questions”).  

The Third Circuit’s holding that class and collective actions are sufficient different that it lacked jurisdiction over issues re the one even though it had jurisdiction over issues re the other firmly establishes a split among the Circuits on the issue. Interested readers may wish to check if either party seeks Supreme Court review.

Source: Reinig v. RBS Citizens, N.A.case no. 17-3464 (3rd Cir. 12/31/19).

Transfer to new supervisor held not a “reasonable accommodation”

What if a disabled employee’s preferred accommodation is to be transferred to a new supervisor? In a recent Pennyslvania case, the Third Circuit held that an employer was within its rights to deny such a request as it would not have been a “reasonable accommodation” required under the ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act).

The Third Circuit observed that the employer had met its obligation to engage in the ADA’s required “interactive process” by exploring the disabled worker’s purported need for accommodation. The company had “met with her, considered her requests, and offered several accommodations, including a part-time work schedule.” The worker had, in turn, rejected all efforts to reach an accommodation. The Court observed that she was simply “unwilling to agree to any accommodation that included continued supervision by” her supervisor. The Court rejected her request for a new supervisor, holding it was not required by the ADA, and noting further that courts are not authorized by the ADA to restructure the terms of employment.

Source: Sessoms v. Univ. of Penn., case no. 17-2369 (3rd Cir. 6/20/18).