NLRB Rejects Another Social Media Policy

Last month in Echostar Technologies, L.L.C., 2012 NLRB LEXIS 627 (2012), an NLRB Administrative Law Judge adopted the Acting General Counsel’s rules regarding social media policies by finding that a social media policy interfered with Section 7 rights by prohibiting employees from posting “disparaging or defamatory comments” about the employer and from engaging in social media activities “on Company time.”  The Law Judge noted that the employer’s policy did not include a disclaimer to assure employees that the policy was not intended to interfere with their right to engage in protected concerted activity, and that in the absence of such a disclaimer the prohibition of “disparaging” postings could have a chilling effect on the right of employees to engage in robust discussions about their terms and conditions of employment, citing to the Board’s recent social media policy decision in Costco Wholesale Corp., 358 NLRB No. 106 (2012).  With respect to the rule prohibiting employees from using social media “on Company time,” the Law Judge found that the restriction was overbroad in the absence of any acknowledgment that employees remained free to engage in social media activities during break times or lunch periods.  This decision is further evidence of the Acting General Counsel’s intention to scrutinize employer social media policies.

For more coverage of the NLRB’s recent rulings on social media policies click here.

Seventh Circuit Joins Ranks of Courts Holding that Internal Grievances about Employer Fiduciary Duty Breaches is Actionable Under ERISA Section 510

In Victor George v. Junior Achievement of Central Indiana Inc., decided September 24, 2012, the Seventh Circuit joined the Fifth and Ninth Circuits in holding that Section 510 of ERISA applies to unsolicited, informal grievances to employers.  The courts of appeals have disagreed about the scope of §510, and the Second, Third and Fourth Circuits have permitted Section 510 retaliation claims only where the person’s activities were made a part of formal proceedings or in response to an inquiry from employers (i.e., §510’s language does not protect employees who make “unsolicited complaints that are not made in the context of an inquiry or a formal proceeding.”).  Concluding that the language of Section 510 of ERISA was “ambiguous” and “a mess of unpunctuated conjunctions and prepositions,” the Seventh Circuit concluded that, “an employee’s grievance is within §510’s scope whether or not the employer solicited information.”  The court did, however, reiterate the high threshold to prevail on a Section 510 claim:  “It does ‘not mean that §510 covers trivial bellyaches—the statute requires the retaliation to be ‘because’ of a protected activity…. What’s more, the grievance must be a plausible one, though not necessarily one on which the employee is correct.”

Section 510 of ERISA prohibits retaliation “against any person because he has given information or has testified or is about to testify in any inquiry or proceeding relating to this [Act].”  Remedies for violation of that section are limited to “injunctive and other ―appropriate equitable relief,” which would not include back pay typically, but could include an injunction and reinstatement.  Attorney’s fees are also possible.  In the case, Victor George was a former vice president of Junior Achievement who sued his former employer alleging he was terminated after complaining that money withheld from his pay was not being deposited into his retirement and health savings accounts.  He complained to management, outside accountants, the board, the Department of Labor (although he did not file a complaint).  The District Court dismissed the case on summary judgment, holding George’s informal complaints to his employer did not constitute an “inquiry” under ERISA.  The appellate court reversed holding that George’s informal proceedings do trigger the statute’s protections.

The Birth of Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Actions

In what many are calling the first Dodd-Frank retaliation suit to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut issued a ruling permitting a terminated Human Resources manager’s retaliation claim to proceed.  In Kramer v. Trans-Lux Corp. (to read the full opinion click here), the plaintiff’s Dodd-Frank retaliation claim is based on his termination allegedly caused by his written complaints – one to the company’s CEO, another to the Board’s audit committee and, finally, a complaint to the SEC –  that the company was violating its pension plan.

Much of the argument in the case hinged on whether Kramer’s method of reporting to the SEC – sending a letter to the SEC via regular mail – was sufficient to trigger Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provisions.  Specifically, the defendant employer insisted that a “whistleblower” under Dodd-Frank’s statutory definitions must report violations to the SEC through the Commission’s website or by mailing or faxing a Form TCR (Tip, Complaint or Referral).  The court rejected this construction, finding that such an interpretation would defeat a key goal of the Dodd-Frank Act to “improve the accountability and transparency of the financial system” and create “new incentives and protections for whistleblowers.”  Like two other federal courts in Maryland and New York, the federal court in Connecticut specifically noted that the term “whistleblower” should be given broader construction in the retaliation provision of the statute than in other portions.

This decision opens the door for more whistleblower lawsuits under Dodd-Frank – an option that is appealing to many potential plaintiffs.  Notably, a Dodd-Frank retaliation claim offers different remedies than a Sarbanes-Oxley claim.  Further, Dodd-Frank offers a significantly longer statute of limitations.  Yet another bonus: Dodd-Frank claims can be brought directly in federal court whereas Sarbanes-Oxley claims must be brought through a U.S. Department of Labor administrative process.

For more background on Dodd-Frank retaliation claims click here to read “Dodd-Frank: Picking Up Where SOX Fell Short”, authored by Lynne Anne Anderson and Meredith R. Murphy in the New Jersey Labor and Employment Law Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 4 – May 2012.

New FCRA Background Check Forms Required January 1, 2013

Effective January 1, 2013, employers must revise Summary of Rights forms they provide to prospective and current employees as required under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”).

The FCRA is a federal law which applies whenever a covered employer seeks information from a “consumer reporting agency” regarding an individual’s credit, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living.  A “consumer reporting agency” is defined quite broadly under the FCRA, resulting in an employer being subject to the FCRA simply by using a third-party vendor to conduct background checks on any of its applicants/employees.

Pursuant to the FCRA, an employer is required to provide a disclosure and obtain written authorization from any applicant/employee prior to conducting a background check.  Should the employer seek to take an “adverse action” against the applicant/employee based on the background check — which, for purposes of the FCRA is defined as a denial of employment or any other decision that adversely impacts the applicant/employee (i.e., failure to hire, transfer, termination) — the employer must first provide the applicant/employee a copy of the background check and a Summary of Your Rights under the FCRA (“Summary of Rights”) form under the FCRA.  It is this Summary of Rights form that employers must revise prior to January 1, 2013.

With President Obama’s signing of the Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (signed into law on July 21, 2010) enforcement powers over the FCRA were transferred from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to a newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).  The CFPB has since issued regulations requiring employers to revise their Summary of Rights forms effective January 1. 2013 to reflect that information about consumers rights under the FCRA can now be obtained from the CFPB instead of the FTC.

Other notice provisions under the FCRA remain the same.  After taking adverse action against an applicant/employee based on a background check, the employer must provide the applicant/employee with notice of the adverse action, as well as the name, address and toll-free telephone number of the third-party vendor that conducted the background check, and a written statement that the third-party vendor did not make the decision to take the adverse action and is unable to provide the applicant/employee with specific reasons as to why the adverse action was taken.  The employer must also provide the applicant/employee with notice of his/her rights to obtain a free copy of the consumer report within sixty days and to dispute the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in the report.

Further, while the FTC no longer will have primary statutory authority to issue interpretive guidance under the FCRA, the agency on July 20, 2011 issued a Staff Report entitled “Forty Years of Experience with the Fair Credit Reporting Act: An FTC Staff Report and Summary of Interpretations” which compiles and updates the agency’s prior guidance under the FCRA and provides a section-by-section summary of the agency’s interpretations of the Act.  The FTC also has withdrawn its 1990 Commentary on the FCRA, which the agency admits had become obsolete as a result of statutory amendments expanding the FCRA in the intervening years.  A copy of the FTC’s new Staff Report can be found on the FTC’s website at http://www.ftc.gov/os/2011/07/110720fcrareport.pdf.  The copy of the new Summary of Rights form which employers are required to use effective January 1, 2013 can be downloaded from the CFPB’s website at http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/graphics/pdfs/er21dell.019.pdf.

NLRB Announces its First Formal Ruling on the Legality of Social Media Policies

In line with the series of guidelines issued by the Acting General Counsel over the past year, the NLRB has announced its first formal ruling on social media policies, finding that the social media policy of Costco Wholesale Corp. is unlawful because it broadly prohibits online comments “that damage the Company, defame any individual or damage any person’s reputation, or violate the policies” in the employer’s handbook.  358 NLRB No. 106.  The case represents the first ruling by the Board on the legality of social media policies, and follows the Acting General Counsel’s admonition that overbroad policy statements will be held unlawful.

The Board observed in its opinion that in the absence of a disclaimer notifying employees that the rule is not intended to restrict the right to engage in protected concerted activities, the broad prohibition on comments that might “damage the Company” is overbroad and unlawful because “employees would reasonably conclude that the rule requires them to refrain from engaging in” communications that are critical of the company or its supervisors despite the fact that the policy does not appear to address or prohibit critical comments about the company.  In this respect, the opinion appears to reflect the Board’s approach that policy statements will be judged not by what they purport to prohibit, but by whether employees could reasonably construe them as restricting their right to communicate about terms and conditions of employment.   The Board observed that context matters, however, suggesting that employers might avoid liability by inserting appropriate disclaimers in their social media policies or by tying the prohibition to specific examples of egregious conduct such as the use of profane language, abusive or unlawful statements, or comments reflecting sexual or racial harassment.

The Costco opinion highlights the fact that overbroad social media policy restrictions on negative comments will be found to be unlawful by the Board, and that imposing discipline for making such comments might expose employers to unfair labor practice charges – even for non-union workforces – and the potential for wrongful termination claims.  As referenced above, some of this risk can be managed by avoiding using overly broad restrictions, by carefully wording your policy to specifically notify employees that their protected rights are not encompassed by the policy restrictions, and by including examples of prohibited activity to provide context to the restrictions imposed.  As have the prior guideline memoranda from the Acting General Counsel, this ruling provides a reminder that all businesses should reevaluate both the language and impact of their internet/social media policies with an eye towards these potential areas of risk.

A Litigator’s Perspective on Trade Secret Protection Programs: How to Protect Your Valuable Information Against Rogue Employees

Mark E. Terman, a partner in the Los Angeles office and a member of the Competitive Advantage practice team, authoried the article “A Litigator’s Perspective on Trade Secret Protection Programs:  How to Protect Your Valuable Information Against Rogue Employees,” which was recently published on InsideCounsel.com.  Mark’s article discusses the Uniform Trade Secrets Act and its variations, as well as questions companies should consider when developing their own trade secret program.  Mark also emphasizes that companies should have a program to deter and limit trade secret misappropriation.  “A seeming axiom of trade secret and unfair competition litigation is that the more brazen and dishonest the behavior of the former employee (and perhaps their new employer), the more accommodating a court may be to a company whose proof is less than perfect. By contrast, the thinner a company plaintiff’s proof is, the more a court may accept a former employee’s argument that there is nothing secret, nor valuable in the assets even if their theft can be proven” he says.

To read the entire article click here.