NLRB Chills At-Will Acknowledgements

By: Jerrold J. Wohlgemuth

Having warned employers about the legality of their social media policies under the National Labor Relations Act, NLRB Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon has apparently turned his attention to at-will employment statements in employer handbooks and manuals.  Employers of union and non-union workforces need to pay careful attention to this development.

Many employers use standard language in their handbooks and manuals in which their employees acknowledge that their employment is at-will; that the employer may terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason; and that the at-will employment relationship cannot be amended, altered or modified except by a writing signed by a senior member of management.  The Acting General Counsel apparently believes that such at-will disclaimers may interfere with or chill the right of employees to engage in protected concerted activity.

In a case that did not receive extensive publicity, the General Counsel’s Office filed an unfair labor practice charge in February 2012 against Hyatt Hotels (NLRB v. Hyatt Hotels Corp., Case 28 CA-061114) in which it alleged that the at-will disclaimer in the company’s employee handbook violated Section 8(a)(1) of the Act to the extent it required employees to acknowledge that their at-will employment status could not be altered except by a writing signed by management.  The charge appears to reflect the Acting General Counsel’s belief that such an acknowledgement will have a chilling effect on the Section 7 right of employees to engage in concerted activity for the purpose of organizing to alter their employment relationship with the employer by choosing union representation.  The Hyatt case was settled before the issue was presented for a hearing.  An Administrative Law Judge issued a similar ruling in a case decided in early February against the American Red Cross; the case was resolved when the Red Cross agreed to modify its at-will disclaimer before the issue could be presented to the Board for review. (NLRB v. Am. Red Cross, 2012 WL 311334, Feb 1, 2012).

This is an important initiative on the part of the Acting General Counsel.  As we have seen in the social media context, in analyzing handbooks and policy manuals the Acting General Counsel will apply Section 7 broadly to find statements unlawful to the extent they could be interpreted in almost any fashion to chill employee rights to engage in protected concerted activity.  Accordingly, employers may want to take proactive steps to avoid NLRB scrutiny by including a disclaimer in the at-will sections of their handbooks to the effect that the at-will acknowledgment does not, and is not intended to, undermine or interfere with the employee’s right to engage in protected concerted organizing activity under Section 7 of the Act.

New Jersey’s Appellate Court Denies Employer’s Attempt to Dismiss Claims on Eve of Trial Based on Employee Agreement to Arbitrate

By: Lynne Anne Anderson and Jerrold Wohlgemuth

Can an employer litigate employment claims in court and then enforce an arbitration agreement against the plaintiff-employee on the eve of trial to avoid presenting the case to a jury?  The New Jersey Appellate Division just said, “No.”

Plaintiff Karen Cole was a nurse anesthetist employed by Liberty Anesthesia Associates, LLC to work at Jersey City Medical Center.  When her privileges were revoked by the Hospital, Liberty terminated her employment and she filed suit against both Liberty and the Hospital for retaliatory discharge under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”), and for discriminatory discharge based on her disability under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).

Cole settled her claims against the Hospital at the hearing on the Hospital’s motion for summary judgment.  Liberty did not settle with plaintiff at that time.  Instead, after defending the action for almost two years in litigation, Liberty moved to dismiss the claims against it one month later in a motion in limine filed three days before trial based on the arbitration agreement Cole had entered into in her employment agreement with Liberty.  The trial court enforced the arbitration agreement and dismissed the case on the eve of trial, and Cole appealed.

In a March 29, 2012 opinion, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed and remanded the action for trial.  The court found that Liberty’s counsel had pursued the litigation – instead of seeking to enforce the arbitration agreement – as a deliberate trial strategy, and determined that Liberty was equitably estopped from enforcing the arbitration provision at the last minute before trial where it had failed to mention arbitration among the thirty-five affirmative defenses asserted in its Answer; failed to identify the arbitration agreement in discovery; and failed to raise the agreement in its motion for summary judgment on the merits.  The court observed that Liberty’s deliberate course of conduct was prejudicial to Cole where it had caused her not only to participate in extensive discovery, but also to prepare to try her case before a jury, which the court noted required a great deal more preparation than presenting a case in arbitration.

To read the published opinion in Cole click hereCole is reported at 425 N.J. Super 48 (App. Div. 2012).

Finding Employer’s Disclaimers Inadequate, New York High Court Rules For Employee Alleging Oral Bonus Promise

By: William R. Horwitz

The New York State Court of Appeals recently issued a decision highlighting the importance of including clear disclaimers in employee handbooks.  In Ryan v. Kellogg Partners Institutional Services, Plaintiff Daniel Ryan left an established securities firm to go to work for Defendant Kellogg Partners, a startup venture.  According to Ryan, Kellogg lured him with the oral promise of a $175,000 bonus.  When Kellogg failed to pay the bonus and then terminated his employment, Ryan filed a lawsuit asserting claims for failure to pay wages in violation of New York State Labor Law §§ 190-198 and breach of contract.

At trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Ryan.  With interest, attorneys’ fees and costs, the judgment totaled $379,956.65.  The Appellate Division, First Department, affirmed.

On appeal, Kellogg argued that statements in its employment application and employee handbook negated “Ryan’s alleged expectation of or entitlement to a guaranteed or non-discretionary bonus.”  The Court observed that the “Acknowledgments” section of the employment application merely confirmed that, if hired, Ryan would be employed on an at-will basis.  According to the Court, the at-will language was irrelevant because Ryan was not asserting an “alleged right to continued employment, compensation or benefits.”

The signed “Receipt” section of the employee handbook indicated that the handbook did not create “a promise of future benefits or a binding contract … for benefits or any other purpose.”  The Court explained that this language did not undermine Ryan’s claims, because the “handbook [did] not say that oral compensation agreements are unenforceable, or mention bonuses at all.”  Thus, the Court observed, “there are no statements in the handbook that bar Ryan’s recovery on his breach-of-contract and Labor Law claims for compensation alleged to be due and owing him.”  The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment for Ryan.

At-will language in employment applications and employee handbooks is critical.  However, as the Ryan decision makes clear, employers should also be sure that policies state unequivocally that bonus decisions are left to the employer’s sole discretion.  Policies should also state that promises regarding bonuses and other terms and conditions of employment are valid only if made in a writing and signed by the employer.

How ICE Can Freeze Your Business Operations!

By: Pascal Benyamini

ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was formed in 2003 “as part of the federal government’s response to the 9/11 attacks and its mission is to protect the security of the American people and homeland by vigilantly enforcing the nation’s immigration and customs laws.” With an annual budget of more than $5 billion and more than 19,000 employees in over 400 offices in the U.S. and around the world, ICE is the largest investigative agency in the United States Department of Homeland Security.  ICE may conduct raids or sweeps at a particular place of business. ICE can also send Notices of Inspections to employers to alert them that it will be inspecting their I-9s and hiring records to determine whether or not they are complying with employment eligibility verification laws and regulations.  ICE’s increased focus is on holding employers accountable for their hiring practices and their efforts to ensure a legal workforce.  ICE also seeks to ensure that employers are compliant with I-9 forms and hiring records.

In the event of audits or raids, employers’ non-compliance may result in civil penalties and lay the groundwork for criminal prosecution of employers who have knowingly violated the law.  According to ICE’s Assistant Secretary John Morton, “ICE is focused on finding and penalizing employers who believe they can unfairly get ahead by cultivating illegal workplaces.”  He added that ICE is “increasing criminal and civil enforcement of immigration-related employment laws and imposing smart, tough employer sanctions to even the playing field for employers who play by the rules.”

While the presence of illegal aliens at a business does not necessarily mean the employer is responsible, consulting with legal counsel is paramount to limiting your potential exposure in your hiring practices.