No More No-Gossip Policies?

A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administrative law judge ruled recently that the “no-gossip” policy of Laurus Technical Institute, a for-profit technical school located in Georgia, broke federal law because it was overly broad, ambiguous and restricted employees from discussing or complaining about any terms and/or conditions of employment, even though nothing in Laurus’s policy directly addressed discussions about wages, hours or other employment terms and conditions.

Kate Gold, partner in the Los Angeles office, recently told Human Resource Executive Online during an interview on the topic of the Laurus decision and no-gossip policies for employers, “Though the NLRB has been focused on other policies that could violate an employee’s right to engage in protected concerted activity — such as social media or confidentiality policies — no-gossip policies can be especially problematic.”

Kate went on to say “I would not include it among the top 10 or even the top 20 essential policies an employer should include in a handbook or policy manual, such as an at-will, anti-harassment or reasonable accommodation policy. However, given the type of concern raised by a no-gossip policy, there could be other employer policies that are problematic for the same reasons. The issue raised by an overbroad no-gossip policy is whether it constitutes an unlawful restriction on an employee’s right to engage in protected concerted activity under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.”

For the full text of the article click here.

Are You Ready For Your Company’s Holiday Party?

By: Pascal Benyamini

Many companies start planning their holiday party now.  Employers need to know that an employer can be held liable for accidents and injuries caused by their employees who over indulge themselves with alcohol at the party, even if the employee initially made it home safely!  You read that correctly.  The California Court of Appeal, in Purton v. Marriott International, Inc., recently held that the company was potentially liable for a fatal motor vehicle accident caused by one of its employees who had attended the company’s hosted party.  While the employee arrived home safely, the employee left about 20 minutes later to drive another co-worker home.  The co-worker was also intoxicated.  During this trip the employee struck another car, killing its driver.  The trial court granted summary judgment for the employer on the ground that the employer’s potential liability under the doctrine of respondeat superior ended when the employee arrived home.

The court of appeal reversed and held that an employer may be found liable for its employee’s tortious conduct “as long as the proximate cause of the injury occurred within the scope of employment.  It is irrelevant that foreseeable effects of the employee’s negligent conduct occurred at a time the employee was no longer acting within the scope of his or her employment.”  The court explained that a jury could conclude that the proximate cause of the injury, i.e., the employee’s alcohol consumption, and the negligent conduct, i.e., the car accident, occurred within the scope of his employment.  The court further found that the going and coming rule, which generally exempts an employer from liability for the torts of its employees committed while going to or coming home from their work, was an “analytical distraction” because the “thrust of [plaintiff’s] claim for vicarious liability was that [the employee] was an `instrumentality of danger’ because of what had happened to her at work.”  As such, the court focused on the “act on which vicarious liability is based and not on when the act results in injury.”  The court also stated that the record presented sufficient evidence for a finding that the employee in question breached a duty of due care he owed to the public once he became intoxicated and that the employer “created the risk of harm at its party by allowing an employee to consume alcohol to the point of intoxication.”

This case certainly gives the definition of “within the course and scope of employment” a broader meaning.  That said, the moral of the story: (1) don’t drink and drive; (2) don’t let your employees do so either; and (3) limit your employees’ consumption of alcohol at company events.

NLRB Issues Guidance on Lawful Confidentiality Language

By: Marion B. Cooper

On July 30, 2012, the NLRB (“Board”) issued a decision in Banner Health System dba Estrella Medical Center, 358 NLRB No. 93 holding, among other things, that the employer violated Section 8(a)(1) (which prohibits employers from interfering, restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of their rights), by restricting employees from discussing any complaint that was then the subject of an ongoing internal investigation.

To minimize the impact of such a confidentiality mandate on employees’ Section 7 rights, the Board found that an employer must make an individualized determination in each case that its “legitimate business justification” outweighed the employee’s rights to protected concerted activity in discussing workplace issues.  In Banner Health, the employer did not carry its burden to show a legitimate business justification because it failed to make a particularized showing that:

  • Witnesses were in need of protection;
  • Evidence was in danger of being destroyed;
  • Testimony was in danger of being fabricated; or
  • A cover-up must be prevented.

The Board concluded that the employer’s one-size-fits-all rule, prohibiting employees from engaging in any discussion of ongoing internal investigations, clearly failed to meet these requirements.

More recently, the NLRB’s Office of the General Counsel clarified the limits of how such policies could be drafted without running afoul of Section 7 in an advice memorandum released on April 24, 2013 (dated January 29, 2013).   The Region had submitted Verso Paper, Case 30-CA-089350 (January 29, 2013) to the Office of the General Counsel for advice regarding the confidentiality rule at issue and whether it unlawfully interfered with employees’ Section 7 rights.  Specifically, the Verso Code of Conduct contained this provision prohibiting employees from discussing ongoing internal investigations:

Verso has a compelling interest in protecting the integrity of its investigations.  In every investigation, Verso has a strong desire to protect witnesses from harassment, intimidation and retaliation, to keep evidence from being destroyed, to ensure that testimony is not fabricated, and to prevent a cover-up.  To assist Verso in achieving these objectives, we must maintain the investigation and our role in it in strict confidence.  If we do not maintain such confidentiality, we may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including immediate termination.

Reiterating that employees have a Section 7 right to discuss disciplinary investigations of their co-workers, the General Counsel’s Office found that the Verso Paper provision did not allow for a case-by-case analysis of whether or not the employer’s business justification for the restriction outweighed the employees’ Section 7 rights as required by Banner Health.  According to the General Counsel’s Office, the employer may establish this by presenting facts specific to a given investigation that give rise to a legitimate and substantial business justification for imposing confidentiality restrictions.

However, in footnote 7 of its advice, the General Counsel’s Office, after noting that the first two sentences of the Verso Paper rule lawfully set forth the employer’s interest in protecting the integrity of its investigations, surprisingly put forward a modified version of the remainder of the Verso Paper provision that it said would pass muster under Banner Health:

Verso may decide in some circumstances that in order to achieve these objectives, we must maintain the investigation and our role in it in strict confidence.  If Verso reasonably imposes such a requirement and we do not maintain such confidentiality, we may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including immediate termination.

Although this guidance is not binding, combining this language above with the first two sentences of the Verso Paper provision could certainly strengthen an employer’s argument that its intent was not to violate an employee’s Section 7 rights, but rather, to lawfully put employees on notice that if the employer “reasonably” imposes a confidentiality requirement, they must abide by it or face discipline.  However, employers must remain mindful that using a provision like this suggested does not obviate the need for the employer to engage in the particularized case-by-case determination of its substantial and legitimate business need that would permit it to impose confidentiality restrictions on the investigation.

Bill Horwitz Article Published in New York Law Journal

An article by Florham Park counsel Bill Horwitz titled, “Second Circuit Adopts New Standard Involving Harassment by Non-Employees,” was published in the New York Law Journal.

Bill discussed the case of Summa v. Hofstra University, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit addressed the question of whether an employer is liable when non-employees harass its personnel and adopted a standard for answering it.

The case involved claims of sexual harassment and retaliation by a former part-time manager of Hofstra University’s football team, a graduate student named Lauren Summa. Bill says the decision, however, has implications “beyond the world of college sports and applies to harassing conduct by vendors, customers and other third parties.”

The Second Circuit held that Summa could not pursue her sexual harassment claims against the university because it promptly responded to her complaints about football players’ conduct and took appropriate remedial action. The court, however, allowed her retaliation claim to continue because Summa provided sufficient proof that her complaints about the football team influenced the university’s decision to ultimately terminate her employment.

Bill says the decision “serves as a reminder to employers that: (1) ensuring that employees do not engage in inappropriate conduct will not necessarily shield an employer from civil liability for harassment; and (2) preventing retaliation against an employee who complains about harassment may be as important as preventing harassment in the first place.”

Board Reverses 34-year Rule and Requires Employers to Give Unions Actual Witness Statements

By: Mark D. Nelson

Since 1978, the National Labor Relations Board has allowed employers to refuse to provide unions with copies of witness statements obtained during an investigation of employee misconduct.  In Anheuser-Busch, 237 NLRB 982 (1978), the Board agreed with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that disclosure of witness statements to a union would create a risk of coercion and intimidation and could well cause witnesses to be reluctant to provide truthful statements or participate in Board investigations.  Recognizing that a union may have a legitimate need for information related to the investigation, the Board required employers to provide summaries of the witness statements to the union.  This requirement balanced the confidentiality rights of the employees providing the statements with the union’s interest in relevant information.

The Board has rejected this “bright-line” rule and replaced it with a “balancing test” to decide when and under what circumstances an employer must give the union actual witness statements.  Under this new approach, articulated in American Baptist Homes of the West, d/b/a Piedmont Gardens, 359 NLRB No. 46 (2012), employers must produce witness statements to a union upon request unless the employer can prove its confidentiality interest outweighs the union’s need for the information.

In Piedmont Gardens, the employer operated a continuing care facility that offered independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing care level options to its residents.  In June 2011, a charge nurse informed the Human Resources Director that she had seen two certified nursing assistants sleeping on the job.  The HR Director asked the charge nurse to prepare a written statement and assured her it would be kept confidential.  Another charge nurse who witnessed the sleeping employees prepared a written statement after learning that her fellow charge nurse had done so, but without an assurance of confidentiality.  Based on the witness statements, one of the sleeping employees was terminated.

The union requested all written statements relied on in making the termination decision and the names and job titles of everyone who was involved in the investigation.  The employer refused to provide any of the requested information, but it offered to work with the union to reach an “accommodation to disclosure.”  No information was provided to the union, and it filed an unfair labor practice charge.

The Board majority held that the employer was required to provide the witnesses’ names and job titles, along with the witness statement from the charge nurse who was not assured of confidentiality.  However, the Board stated it would not apply its new standard in this case because it would cause a “manifest injustice” to the employer who was guided by the Anheuser-Busch standard.  Thus, the employer did not have to provide the witness statements of employees who were told their statements would remain confidential.

The discarded Anheuser-Busch standard provided employers and unions certainty about their respective rights and obligations regarding disclosure of witness statements given during an employer’s investigation of possible wrongdoing.  The new standard eviscerates certainty and creates a standard that is vague, subjective and outcomes will be unpredictable because each situation will be based on its unique and nuanced facts.  As noted by dissenting Board Member Hayes, the new standard “will often put human relations officials…in the position of making a legal assessment whether their employer’s confidentiality interests are legitimate, substantial, and superior to the interest of the union requesting witness statements.”

This ruling follows another recent Board decision that ruled employers can no longer, as a matter of human resource practice or policy, require employees to maintain confidentiality of investigatory interviews.  Banner Health System, d/b/a Banner Estrella Medical Center, 358 NLRB No. 93 (2012). Unionized employers now must consider when and how they can give confidentiality assurances to employees who provide witness statements and under what parameters the employer’s confidentiality interests are more important than the union’s right to obtain witness statements. Employers should analyze their investigatory practices and policies in light of these two rulings.

The likely real-world implications for unionized employers is that unions will demand witness statements with regularity and, if the employer refuses, file unfair labor practice charges.  More frequent involvement of legal counsel may well be necessary because of the vague and fact-specific balancing act employers are now required to make.

Seventh Circuit Expands § 1981 Coverage to Include Individual Liability for Retaliation Under “Cat’s Paw” Theory

By: Frank M. Nardulli

The Seventh Circuit has held that an employee with an unlawful retaliatory motive may be individually liable under § 1981 for causing an employer to retaliate against a co-worker.  Section § 1981 prohibits racial discrimination in contractual relations and has been held applicable to employment matters.

In Smith v. Bray, the Seventh Circuit tackled this issue of first impression by looking to recent Supreme Court precedent endorsing the “cat’s paw” theory of employer liability under Title VII and the holdings of five circuits that the “cat’s paw” theory supports individual liability under § 1983, which provides redress for individuals whose federally protected rights have been violated.  As such, the Court held that “recognizing cat’s paw liability under § 1981 is consistent with our parallel approaches to these [non-discrimination] statutes.”

The “cat’s paw” theory, which was recognized by the Supreme Court in Staub v. Proctor Hosp., 131 S. Ct. 1186 (2011), says that an employer may be liable for discrimination under Title VII where an adverse employment decision is based on a biased or improperly motivated recommendation by a subordinate or supervisor.  “Cat’s paw” liability may be established where a plaintiff can show that an employee with a discriminatory purpose or bias provided information that may have affected an adverse action.  The theory comes from a French fable wherein a monkey (the biased employee) convinces a cat (the employer) to pull chestnuts from a hot fire.  The cat’s paw is then burned and the monkey enjoys the fruits of the cat’s labor.  In holding that the “cat’s paw” theory can support individual liability under § 1981, the court inquired, “Why should the ‘hapless cat’ (or at least the employer) get burned but not the malicious ‘monkey’?”

This decision is noteworthy not just because it endorses individual liability under § 1981, but also because it provides an arrow in a plaintiff’s quiver which is not available under Title VII as most circuits have held that an individual cannot be liable under Title VII.  As far as race discrimination is concerned, however, Smith v. Bray opens the door for suits against supervisors and co-workers under a “cat’s paw” theory.