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.
Board awards in unfair labor practice cases are usually premised in a make-whole remedy which, in the case of back-pay awards for example, include interest. Interest has been part of the remedy for decades. More recently, daily compound interest became the rule. The Board can reset the rate quarterly using the short-term federal rate plus three percent, which is the rate the IRS uses for underpayment of taxes. For several years, the rate was three or four percent, given the state of the economy. Interest awards can really add up, especially when a make-whole remedy impacts a large workforce and interest accrues over the many years it can take for final decision in a ULP case. As such, interest is normally a factor in litigation and settlement of these cases.
By Vik Jaitly
Last week the 7th Circuit U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Lewis v. Epic-Systems Corp., held that a company’s arbitration agreement, which prohibits employees from participating in “any class, collective or representative proceeding,” violated an employees’ right to engage in concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The ruling creates a circuit split on the enforceability of class action waivers because the 2nd, 5th, and 8th Circuits each have held that class action waivers do not violate an employee’s rights under the NLRA. Because of this circuit split, it is likely that the Supreme Court will visit this issue in the near future.
Background on Enforceability of Class Action Waivers
In recent years, federal courts have largely upheld arbitration pacts with class or collective action waiver language that provides that not only must an employee bring his or her claim exclusively in arbitration, but also that he or she must do so on an individual, and not on a class-wide basis. Specifically, in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion (2011), the Supreme Court ordered the enforcement of arbitration agreements in a dispute involving an arbitration provision in cellphone contracts. In the process, Concepcion generally held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts state bans on class action arbitration waivers. The case however, did not directly address the viability of class action waivers in the employment context.
Shortly thereafter, in January 2012, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that an employer could not force its employees to sign arbitration agreements with class waiver provisions because such agreements were unlawful under the NLRA. See D.R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB 184 (2012). On appeal, the 5th Circuit rejected the NLRB’s holding that class waivers in mandatory arbitration agreements are unlawful, joining the 2nd and 8th Circuits, which had issued similar rejections.
Seventh Circuit Opinion
In Lewis v. Epic-Systems Corp., the plaintiff had entered into an arbitration agreement with his employer in which he had waived his “right to participate in or receive money or any other relief from any class, collective, or representative proceeding.” Lewis later filed a suit in federal court on behalf of himself and other employees alleging that the company had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by misclassifying the employees and depriving them of overtime.
The employer moved to dismiss plaintiff’s claims and compel arbitration on an individual claim basis. The plaintiff argued that the agreement’s class and collective action waiver was unenforceable because it interfered with his right to engage in concerted activity under Section 7 of the NLRA. The district court agreed with plaintiff and denied employer’s motion to dismiss, relying primarily on a prior decision the district court had issued adhering to the D.R. Horton’s decision. The district court believed the 5th Circuit’s majority opinion “never persuasively rebutted the board’s conclusion that a collective litigation waiver violates the NLRA and never explained why, if there is tension between the NLRA and the FAA, it is the FAA that should trump the NLRA, rather than the reverse.” The employer subsequently appealed the district court’s decision to the 7th Circuit.
In its analysis, the 7th Circuit adopted the NLRB’s reasoning (as stated in D.R. Horton) that engaging in class, collective or representative proceedings is “concerted activity” and a protected right under Section 7 of the NLRA. Therefore, the court concluded, it would be an unfair labor practice under Section 8 of the NLRA for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise” of this right.
Surprisingly, the 7th Circuit rejected the argument that the arbitration agreement must be enforced under the FAA—an argument adopted by all the other circuits that have ruled on this matter. In its ruling, the court focused on the FAA’s savings clause, which provides that arbitration agreements are enforceable except if the agreements themselves are unlawful. Thus, the court found that Epic’s arbitration agreement is illegal under the NLRA, and because an illegal agreement is not enforceable under the FAA’s savings clause, there is no conflict between the FAA and the NLRA.
General Takeaways for Employers
The Lewis decision leaves employers with several takeaways: First, employer need to know that class and collective action waivers will not be enforced in federal courts sitting in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, which are the states within the Seventh Circuit’s jurisdiction.
Second, these same agreements will likely continue to be enforced in federal courts sitting in the circuits that have rejected the NLRB’s reasoning in D.R. Horton (for now, 2nd, 5th, and 8th Circuits).
Third, this circuit split will likely involve the input of the Supreme Court in the future but perhaps not between the Presidential election, and the appointment of a ninth Justice, given the desire to avoid a 4-4 split. If the case is brought before the Supreme Court before a new Justice is confirmed by the Senate, and the Supreme Court decision is split 4-4, each of the Circuit’s decisions will remain in effect.
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.
By David Woolf
National Labor Relations Board activity in the area of work rules, among other areas, has become the new normal. Employers have come to expect that the Board will find a work rule unlawful if the rule, taken literally, could hypothetically interfere with an employee’s right to engaged in “concerted activities” – legal speak for two or more employees raising issues about the terms or conditions of their employment. Now, the Board is also finding success on appeal.
Most recently, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Hyundai America Shipping Agency, Inc. v. NLRB, a case in which Hyundai appealed the Board’s finding that certain work rules in its handbook violated the National Labor Relations Act because they had a tendency to interfere with its employees’ right to engaged in concerted activities. Those work rules included: (1) a prohibition on employees discussing matters under investigation by the company, (2) a limit on the disclosure of information from Hyundai’s electronic communication and information systems, (3) a prohibition on performing non-work activities during “working hours,” and (4) a provision urging employees to make complaints to their immediate supervisor or human resources employees rather than to fellow employees. The Court affirmed the Board’s decision as to the first three rules, holding that:
• A rule prohibiting, as a blanket matter, the discussion of matters under investigation is problematic because it limits an employee’s right to discuss his or her own employment;
• A rule prohibiting the disclosure of information on the employer’s electronic systems except to authorized persons is problematic because it could prevent an employee from sharing non-confidential information, including information about the terms or conditions of his or her employment; and
• A rule prohibiting an employee from performing non-company work during “working hours” is unlawful because the term working hours – unlike “working time” – could be read to prohibit employees from communicating during breaks.
Interestingly, the Court reversed the Board as to the fourth rule, finding that a rule “urging” employees with a complaint to speak with supervisors or HR rather than co-workers is permissible because it merely urges employees to so act, rather than acting as a prohibition.
So what does this mean for employers? First, the Board’s assault on employer work rules will continue, given that this is an area of frequent disconnect between the Board’s interpretation of the law and common employer practice. Second, employers need to read their rules literally and consider hypothetical scenarios, even when the rule is proper and sensible in 95 percent or more of such scenarios.
For example, an employer can limit employee communications during an investigation, but not all such discussions on a per se basis. The employer should evaluate the issue on a case-by-case basis and consider whether it has a legitimate business justification requiring confidentiality (such as when there is a basis to believe that a disclosure will put evidence at risk or otherwise compromise the investigation). Likewise, an employer may very well expect (legitimately) that its employees will not disclose internal company information, but the rule memorializing that expectation should be limited to confidential information and exclude information about one’s own terms and conditions of employment, so as not to chill the activities of employees who want to talk about their own employment terms. Lastly, it makes all the sense in the world for employers to expect that their employees will perform only work activities while working. But the proper terminology should be used to ensure that employees are not restricted during breaks.
It is noteworthy that, in finding the rule about disclosing information on the employer’s electronic systems improper, the Hyundai Court acknowledged that a “reasonable reader” might understand the rule to be limited to confidential information, which would make it permissible. Unfortunately, “reasonableness” is not the standard; what is possible is. Accordingly, employers would be wise to review their rules carefully and literally to make sure that they are using the most precise language possible to describe the prohibited conduct and that the prohibitions cannot be interpreted – even in a strained way – to limit protected conduct.