On May 21, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in Epic Systems Corporation v. Lewis, in which it held that arbitration agreements containing class action waivers were enforceable notwithstanding the National Labor Relations Act’s protection for employee “concerted activity.” The five-Justice majority opinion sparked a fiery dissent by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who focused on the opinion’s potential impact on wage and hour litigation, among other employee activities. In response, this week, Washington State’s Democratic Governor Jay Inslee issued a sweeping Executive Order seeking to discourage employers from implementing (or continuing to rely on) arbitration agreements with class action waivers. Although Governor Inslee’s action is the exception so far, it may signal a broader backlash to arbitration agreements with class action waivers in the employment context.
In a long-awaited decision, the United States Supreme Court, by a 5-to-4 vote, overturned the National Labor Relations Board’s (the “Board”) ruling that class action waivers violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) because they interfere with the right to engage in “protected activity,” which, according to the Board, includes the ability to bring class or collective actions. Epic Sys. Corp. v. Lewis, No. 16-0285, 2018 WL 2292444, at *23 (U.S. May 21, 2018).
The acronyms “NLRB” or “NLRA” rarely appear in articles about enforcement of private sector non-compete agreements. Until recently. Dun dun dun! (Que the “dramatic gopher video” on YouTube).
In this thirteenth article of “The Restricting Covenant” series, I discuss two cases in which the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) determined that an employer’s enforcement of non-compete and non-solicitation agreements violated Section 8(a) of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). Section 8(a) makes it an unfair labor practice for an employer to maintain workplace rules that would reasonably tend to chill employees in exercising their Section 7 rights to engage in or refrain from concerted activities protected under the NLRA.
Earlier this week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in Morris v. Ernst & Young and aligned itself with the Seventh Circuit in holding that an employer cannot compel individual arbitration of an employee’s class and collective action claims.
In Morris, Plaintiffs Stephen Morris and Kelly McDaniel (“Plaintiffs”) worked for the accounting firm Ernst & Young. As a condition of their employment, Plaintiffs were required to sign an agreement that the Ninth Circuit determined Plaintiffs could only “(1) pursue legal claims against Ernst & Young exclusively through arbitration and (2) arbitrate only as individuals and in ‘separate proceedings.’” In a relatively surprising move and 2-1 decision, the Ninth Circuit found that the employer violated Sections 7 and 8 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by “requiring employees to sign an agreement precluding them from bringing, in any forum, a concerted legal claim regarding wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment.” In doing so, the Ninth Circuit overruled the lower court’s ruling in favor of Ernst & Young in its motion to compel individual arbitration and held that the agreements in question precluded Plaintiffs from “initiat[ing] concerted legal claims against the company in any forum—in court, in arbitration proceedings, or elsewhere.”
As we have previously covered here, here and here, the NLRB has opined that various common handbook provisions are unlawful under the NLRA because they may have the effect of inhibiting employees from engaging in protected activities, such as discussing wages, criticizing management, publicly communicating about working conditions and discussing unionization.
Last week, an NLRB judge provided further guidance in this area in ruling in Chipotle Services LLC and Pennsylvania Worker’s Organizing Committee (Nos. 04-CA-1437314; 04-CA-149551) that Chipotle violated the NLRA by maintaining unlawful policies, improperly forcing an employee to delete social media posts critical of Chipotle, and terminating the employee for his attempts to have his co-workers sign a petition protesting Chipotle’s alleged denial of work breaks.
The last part of the ruling was not entirely surprising – the facts strongly indicated that Chipotle terminated the employee because of, and shortly after, his attempts to have his co-workers sign the petition. However, in finding unlawful various Chipotle policies related to confidentiality, social media, solicitation, ethical communications, and political activities, the decision highlights the difficulties employers face in crafting policies that balance the competing interests of an employee’s right to engage in concerted activity and, among other interests, an employer’s need to protect its confidential information and brand. Some of the policies which the NLRB held were unlawful included:
- • A social media policy that prohibited “false” and “misleading” social media posts, on the basis that “an employer may not prohibit employee postings that are merely false or misleading . . . it must be shown that the employee had a malicious motive,” as well as the provision of the policy prohibiting the disclosure of “confidential” information, where the term “confidential” was vague and undefined;
- • A policy prohibiting “improper use” of Chipotle’s name or trademarks, on the basis that “employees would reasonably interpret any non-work-related use of [Chipotle’s] name to be improper”;
- • An “ethical communication” policy that “prohibit[ed] exaggeration, guesswork and derogatory characterizations of people and their motives,” on the basis that it could be read to prohibit criticism of managerial decisions.
The decision reiterates the NLRB’s previous guidance that broad or vague rules relating to (or not carefully defining) concepts such as “civility,” “respect,” “disparagement” and “confidential information” will be found unlawful because some employees may read them to prohibit protected activity, even where (as here) the policies also contain a disclaimer that they do “not restrict any activity that is protected or restricted the NLRA . . .”
Finally, it should be noted that the policies at issue in the case were, in fact, outdated versions, with Chipotle having replaced them with new versions at the time of the events at issue. The judge found this fact irrelevant, as the Chipotle supervisors (for reasons unclear) relied upon the prior versions of the policies in counseling the employee and ultimately terminating him. Employers, therefore, should take care to properly distribute new policies to staff and counsel them on their application, lest they lose the benefits of any remedial policy updates.