2016 Presidential Election Aftermath: What Can be Expected in the Labor & Employment Law Space

We continue to analyze and assess what the 2016 election results mean in the Labor & Employment Law space, and what we can expect from a GOP White House, House and Senate.  The last two times that this GOP alignment was present were 1929 and 2007 (let’s hope that the financial events that followed those two occasions – the Great Depression and the Great Recession – do not repeat themselves this time around).

It is difficult to predict what President Donald J. Trump’s actual agenda will be, because his campaign was long on broad concepts and very short on serious, detailed policy presentation. While Candidate Trump said many things, including contradictory things, about many topics, some themes can be discerned from pre-election and post-election comments.  Also, some issues have been on the GOP wish list for some time, but until they could have the alignment of White House and Congress that will be in place in January, those wish list items, as a practical matter, were just wishes.  Here are our impressions about what changes will occur.

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Ruling Postponed on Whether the DOL Exemption Rules will be Enjoined Before December 1, 2016

Since our November 10 Post, Will the DOL Exemption Rules Be Enjoined Before December 1, 2016?, federal District Court Judge Amos L. Mazzant, III heard nearly 3.5 hours of argument today on the Emergency Motion for Preliminary Injunction to stop nationwide implementation of the Department of Labor’s May 16, 2016 Final Rule Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Outside Sales and Computer Employees.  If not enjoined, this Final Rule will require that, by December 1, 2016, employees be paid a weekly salary of at least $913 (annually, $47,476) to maintain “white collar” exemption from overtime and other federal Fair Labor Standards Act requirements, as long as the employees’ duties satisfy the exemption rules too.

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Will the DOL Exemption Rules Be Enjoined Before December 1, 2016?

The Department of Labor’s May 16, 2016 Final Rule Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Outside Sales and Computer Employees require that, by  December 1, 2016, employees must be paid a weekly salary of at least $913 (annually, $47,476) to maintain “white collar” exemption from overtime and other federal Fair Labor Standards Act requirements, as long as the employees’ duties satisfy the exemption rules too.  We wrote about this previously.

Last month, twenty-one states, led by Nevada and Texas, filed an emergency motion to enjoin implementation of the Final Rule in a federal court action commenced the month before.  State of Nevada, et al. v. DOL (USDC, Eastern District of Texas, case No., 4:16-cv-00731-ALM).  At its core, the action challenges DOL authority to increase the salary threshold and set automatic increases, and whether the Final Rule infringes on state government employer’s sovereignty.  This blog post does not analyze the merits of this action, but instead updates our clients and friends on its status given that we are now just a few weeks away from December 1.

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Federal Court Orders Stop to DOL’s Persuader Rule

On June 27, 2016, a Texas federal court granted a preliminary injunction preventing the Department of Labor (DOL) from moving forward on a nationwide basis with the July 1st enforcement of its Final Rule Interpretation of the “Advice” Exemption to Section 203(c) of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) (also known as the DOL’s “Persuader Rule”). The court order was based on findings that plaintiffs in the case of National Federation of Independent Business, et al. v. Perez, 5:16-cv-00066-C, were likely to succeed on the merits of their claims in establishing that the DOL’s Persuader Rule is inconsistent with federal law and exceeds the DOL’s statutory authority.

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In Wiest v. Tyco Electronics Corp., the Third Circuit Further Clarifies a Plaintiff’s Prima Facie Burden for a Retaliation Claim under SOX

Wiest v. Tyco Electronics Corp., a case that has been closely watched by Sarbanes-Oxley (“SOX”) practitioners, may have finally come to a close after nearly six years of litigation. In its decision (click here to view), the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s granting of summary judgment for Tyco, and provided additional clarification on what a plaintiff must do to make out a prima facie retaliation claim under SOX.

Tyco asserted that it fired Plaintiff Jeffrey Wiest in 2008 for inappropriate sexual relations with two female co-workers and sexual harassment. He then brought suit under SOX, alleging that Tyco terminated him for raising concerns to his managers about excessive corporate expenditures.

The case has twice been on appeal to the Third Circuit. In 2010, Tyco successfully moved to dismiss Wiest’s complaint on the basis that his complaints did not amount to “protected activity” under SOX. Upon appeal, the Third Circuit reversed and remanded, adopting the worker-friendly standard that an employee engages in “protected activity” where he has a “reasonable belief” that the employer has violated or may violate the law or SEC rules (rejecting the standard, announced and later abandoned by the DOL’s Administrative Review Board, that the complaint must “definitively and specifically” relate to an existing violation of a particular anti-fraud law).

After remand, Tyco was eventually granted summary judgment on the basis that Wiest’s complaints were not a “contributing factor” in his termination. Wiest again appealed to the Third Circuit, which affirmed, and in the process adopted the standard of several other Circuits that a “contributing factor” was “any factor, which alone or in combination with other factors, tends to affect in any way the outcome of the decision.”

The “contributing factor” standard is a relatively low bar, specifically when compared to the causation standard for retaliation claims under some other statutes. Under Title VII, for example, an employee must establish that his protected activity was a “but-for” cause of the adverse action. See Univ. of Texas Southwestern Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2521 (2013) (“Title VII retaliation claims require proof that the desire to retaliate was the but-for cause of the challenged employment action.”). Nonetheless, the Third Circuit had no trouble finding that Wiest was unable to meet his burden, noting that there was a ten-month gap between Wiest’s alleged protected activity and the adverse action; that he received praise and commendations in the interim; that the persons who initiated the investigations into Wiest’s inappropriate behavior had no knowledge of his protected activity; and that other persons in the accounting department who were involved (or more involved) in the same activity as Wiest did not receive any negative treatment.

Further, the Court also held that, even if Wiest were able to establish a prima facie case, his claim would have failed regardless. An employer may still rely on the defense that it would have taken the adverse action in the absence of protected activity, and the Court held that “Tyco has demonstrated that it would have taken the same actions with respect to Wiest in the absence of Wiest’s accounting activity given the thorough, and thoroughly documented, investigation [into his inappropriate activity] conducted by its human resources director.”

The Wiest decision is useful guidance for employers defending against SOX retaliation claims, as it outlines potential arguments (concerning the temporal relationship between the protected activity and adverse action, intervening events, and the thoroughness of internal investigations) that may be used to defeat an inference of causation or to establish the affirmative defense that the adverse action would have occurred regardless.

Obama Board Reaffirms Successor’s Right to Set Initial Terms of Employment when Taking Over Unionized Operation

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board issued a refreshingly employer-friendly decision which allowed a successor company to implement new pay terms without having to first bargain with the labor union. In Paragon Systems, Inc., 362 NLRB No. 182 (2015), a divided three-member Board panel held that the new guard service, Paragon Systems, Inc. (Paragon), had given sufficient notice to employees of a change in pay and therefore could assert its right to unilaterally set the initial terms and conditions of employment when it assumed a federal contract from the predecessor employer, MVM, whose work force was represented by The Federal Contract Guards of America International Union.

A Successor Can Make Unilateral Changes

In 2011, the Board reinstated the “successor bar” doctrine, where a union is presumed to retain its majority status when the employees it represents are hired to work for a successor employer. UGL UNICCO Service Co., 357 NLRB 76 (2011). This decision overturned MV Transportation, 337 NLRB 770 (2002) in which the Bush Board had refused to impose a successor bar in favor of the employees’ right to free choice of a union representative.

Paragon was deemed a successor because the majority of its work force was made up of former MVM guards. Paragon conceded that it was a successor and in fact, agreed to recognize and bargain with the union. However, without first consulting with the union, Paragon implemented employee pay terms that were different from what its predecessor had in place. Specifically, Paragon reduced the amount of paid “guard mount” time – time spent getting and returning weapons and ammunition – from 30 minutes to 10 minutes per day and discontinued paying for “guard mount” time on weekends.

The union filed an unfair labor practice charge against Paragon which was dismissed by the Administrative Law Judge.

On appeal, the union and the NLRB’s general counsel argued that Paragon as a successor violated Section 8(a)(5) and (1) when it unilaterally made changes to the pay terms. In analyzing the case, the Board stated that “a ‘successor’ employer under NLRB v. Burns International Security Services, 406 U.S. 272 (1972), and Fall River Dyeing & Finishing Corp. v. NLRB, 482 U.S. 27 (1987), is free to set initial employment terms without first bargaining with an incumbent union, unless ‘it is perfectly clear that the new employer plans to retain all of the employees in the unit,’ in which case ‘it will be appropriate to have him initially consult with the employees’ bargaining representative before he fixes terms.’” Paragon Systems, Inc., 362 NLRB. No. 182, slip op. at p. 2 (quoting Burns at 294-295). The Board went on to state that “[o]nce a Burns successor has set initial terms and conditions of employment, however, a bargaining obligation attaches with respect to any subsequent changes to terms and conditions of employment.” Id. In other words, once the successor has established the initial terms, it cannot make any unilateral changes to employment terms without first bargaining with the union.

The Board held that it was undisputed that Paragon was a Burns successor and had properly implemented the initial terms and conditions of employment when it started operations. Accordingly, the Board held that Paragon did not violate the Act when it made unilateral changes to the pay terms that had been in place under the prior employer’s agreement.

Effective Notice to Employees Is Critical

The key issue in this decision was not whether the successor had the right to implement its initial terms and conditions upon becoming the new employer, but the sufficiency of the notice given to employees regarding the change in pay terms. The majority found that Paragon provided adequate notice to employees that there may be a change in such terms. Specifically, prior to taking over the contract, Paragon announced that it had the right to establish compensation, benefits and working conditions; its job applications specifically advised applicants that employees would have to conform to all Paragon policies and reiterated Paragon’s right to set compensation, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment; and Paragon specifically informed applicants that shift schedules would be set in accordance with the operational needs of the contract being serviced by Paragon.

Taken together, these statements were found by the Board to have made clear to employees that Paragon was not adopting MVM’s practice regarding paid guard mount time. Additionally, the implementation of these pay changes occurred on the first day that Paragon assumed operations. The Board majority concluded that the change in pay was within Paragon’s right to set initial terms and conditions of employment.

The sole dissenting Board member argued not that the successor was prohibited from setting the initial terms and conditions of employment, but that the implementation of this change was unlawful because Paragon had not provided specific notice of the specific change. The dissent noted that none of Paragon’s prior statements and communications to employees specifically addressed paid guard mount time.

Moreover, noted the dissent, even if Paragon’s general statements regarding its right to establish compensation, benefits and other working conditions were broad enough to cover the guard mount pay, the fact that Paragon provided detailed information in the contingent offer letter regarding many of the changes in wages and benefits, but was silent regarding guard mount time, reasonably conveyed to employees that no change would be made to such pay.

Practical Takeaways

This decision is good news for potential buyers of businesses, and other employers who are deemed to be successor employers of unionized operations having union contracts, because it reaffirms a successor’s right to make unilateral changes to the initial terms and conditions of employment upon commencement of operations (so long it is not “perfectly clear” that the successor intends to follow the existing agreement – a doctrine beyond the scope of this alert, as the “perfectly clear” doctrine is anything but perfectly clear).

In order to make such changes lawfully, however, the successor must make certain to provide adequate notice about the changes to employees. Notice will be deemed adequate if the successor communicates that it has the right to establish wages, benefits, and working conditions and provides enough general detail about the terms that may be subject to change. A cautious employer should be as specific as it can be when setting initial terms and conditions.