Deconstructing Costco

Much has been written about the NLRB’s recent holding in the seminal Costco case that the company’s facially neutral social media policy prohibiting postings on the Internet that damage the Company or any person’s reputation violates Section 8(a)(1) of the Act.  But it is also important to understand how the Board came to decide that case in order to better evaluate the appropriate employer response.

The controlling law concerning the validity of facially neutral work rules was established in the 2004 decision in Lutheran Heritage Village in which the Board held that in evaluating such rules it must determine whether employees “would reasonably construe” the language as restricting their Section 7 to engage in protected discussions of their terms and conditions of employment, and recognized that the mere fact that a rule could be read as inhibiting employee rights is insufficient to support a finding that the rule is unlawful.  The Board also observed that it should apply a “reasonable” interpretation to such rules without “reading particular phrases in isolation” and without assuming the employer intended to interfere with protected rights.

When the Costco case was tried before an Administrative Law Judge in 2010, the Acting General Counsel charged the employer with violating Section 8(a)(1) with respect to a number of provisions in its Electronic Communications and Technology Policy, including the requirement that employees use “appropriate business decorum” on social media sites and the prohibition of postings that “damage” the company or anyone’s reputation, because there was no limiting disclaimer to advise the employees that the rule was not intended to restrict their protected rights.  In this respect, the Acting General Counsel argued that the ALJ should reject the Lutheran Heritage Villagewould reasonably construe” standard and apply instead the standard from the dissenting opinion in that case by former Members Liebman and Walsh – that an ambiguous rule that does not include a disclaimer is unlawful if it could be perceived as inhibiting Section 7 rights – because the dissenting opinion would likely be accepted by the majority of the newly composed Board.  The ALJ  rightly rejected that proposition, and specifically recognized that under the controlling Lutheran Heritage Village standard the Board “will not conclude that a reasonable employee would read the rule to [prohibit protected] activity simply because the rule could be interpreted that way  . . . [or] could conceivably be read to” encompass protected conduct.  The ALJ then determined that neither Costco rule was unlawful under the applicable “would reasonably construe” standard because reasonable employees would understand that the rules were intended to promote civility rather than restrict Section 7 activity.

In its decision on appeal, the newly composed Board majority adopted the ALJ’s reasoning that Costco’s “appropriate business decorum” rule was lawful, but found the rule prohibiting comments damaging to the company to be unlawful.  In so finding, the Board purports to recognize the continued validity of Lutheran Heritage Village, and gives lip service to the “would reasonably construe” standard, but tacitly applied the “could be read” standard advocated by the Acting General Counsel.  In this regard, the Board adopted the approach of the Liebman-Walsh dissent by holding that in the absence of a limiting disclaimer the rule “allows employees to reasonably assume that it pertains to” protected comments critical of the company’s management.  It is significant that the Board did not engage in any analysis to determine whether the company’s employees “would reasonably construe” the language of the rule as restricting or prohibiting protected communications, but held the rule to be unlawful only because employees could assume it would in the absence of a limiting disclosure.

The Board has applied the “could be” read standard in two more recent cases.  First, in Flex Frac Logistics, LLC, the Board specifically referred to ambiguous work rules as “rules that reasonably could be read to” inhibit Section 7 rights.  Then in Karl Knauz Motors, Inc., the Board rejected the employer’s Courtesy Rule, which required employees to be courteous in their interactions with customers and coworkers, because it also prohibited employees from being disrespectful or using profanity.  Again giving lip service to Lutheran Heritage Village but applying the standard of the Liebman-Walsh dissent, the Board focused on the “disrespectful” language in isolation and held that in the absence of a limiting disclaimer the rule was unlawful because employees “would reasonably assume” that the employer would punish them for being disrespectful if they raised questions about their terms or conditions of employment.  That approach ignores the requirement that rules should be looked at from the perspective of whether employees would reasonably read the entire rule, in context, as restricting their right to discuss terms and conditions of employment, not whether someone – members of the Acting General Counsel’s staff or Board Members – could theoretically reach that conclusion as an academic legal exercise.

In light of these opinions and the Acting General Counsel’s continued focus on non-union social media policies, employers should expect that the Board will continue to take an expansive approach in holding such policies unlawful if they could be read as restricting protected communications.  Because the Costco majority adopted the Liebman-Walsh reasoning that it is the absence of an accompanying disclaimer that permits employees to assume that facially neutral rules could be applied to restrict their right to engage in protected activity, employers should at a minimum consider including specific limiting disclaimers in those sections of their policies to make clear that the prohibitions are not intended to restrict or interfere with protected communications.

New Year, New Laws in California

As long as the sun rises each day, regulation of California employers will increases each year.  And employers received more attention this year with 554 bills introduced in the California Legislature mentioning “employer,” compared to 346 last year. Fortunately, most bills do not become law.   Mark Terman, partner in the Los Angeles office, has compiled an overview of significant new regulation affecting private employers which appears in the December issue of CAL CPA magazine.  To read the list in its entirety click here.

David Raizman Quoted in Daily Journal

Los Angeles partner David Raizman was quoted in the Daily Journal in an article titled, “Increasing Disability Discrimination Claims Bring up Fraught Workplace Issues.”

The article discusses the rise of disability discrimination and failure to accommodate disability complaints in California, a state that has long had strong provisions against workplace disability discrimination.

Lawyers on both sides of the fence attribute the increased filings to a growing awareness of workplace disability rights among employees and an increased willingness among judges to put such claims before a jury.

California legislators have long employed a broad definition of disability, for example, to include conditions that merely “limit” various life activities, as opposed to “substantially limit” such activities.  Then in 2008, the U.S. Congress adopted many of California’s broad interpretations into federal law.

David, a partner in the Labor & Employment Practice Group, said, “California really led the way here” and, as a result, workers in the state are more likely to see a “less traditional” disability like obesity as something to be accommodated by employers.

David said he tells his clients that if the plaintiff has a medical diagnosis of any kind, a court will most likely consider him or her disabled.  He also said that plaintiffs’ lawyers have learned that the claims are likely to go before a jury because they’re “very hard to dispose of at the summary judgment stage.”

He noted that an employer’s claims of undue hardship in accommodating a disabled worker are “frankly, generally squishy concepts that are more subject to factual dispute than others.”

David added that as California’s workers age, claims of workplace disability discrimination will only continue to increase.

“Given the broad definition of disability, the population is getting more disabled,” he said.

New Guidance May Help Employers Avoid Significant Penalties: How to Prepare for 2014 and the New Employer Shared Responsibility Rules and Waiting Period Limitation

From our friends in the Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation Group: New guidance is available to help employers prepare for the significant new rules that become effective in 2014, including the employer shared responsibility mandate (i.e., the penalties that may be imposed on an employer that doesn’t offer certain health care coverage) and the prohibition on waiting periods in excess of 90 days, under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (health care reform).

Employers may rely on the new guidance through the end of 2014. Employers will not be required to comply with any subsequent guidance that is more restrictive until January 1, 2015 at the earliest. This is good news because it provides employers a measure of certainty about how to prepare for the 2014 employer shared responsibility mandate – particularly those employers concerned about what must be done to avoid significant penalties for failing to provide coverage, or for providing unaffordable coverage.

Click here to download a summary of the current rules to help determine who is a full-time employee for purposes of the employer shared responsibility mandate and the 90-day waiting period limitation, as well as suggested steps employers should take now to prepare for 2014.

PEPping Up the Economy and Employers

On October 26, Governor Tom Corbett (R-PA) signed into law the Promoting Employment Across Pennsylvania Act (PEP) (House Bill 2626).  This law is touted as an attempt to create new jobs in Pennsylvania and promote economic development.

What does this mean for thousands of Pennsylvania employers?  If you are able to create at least 250 new jobs in Pennsylvania within 5 years (with 100 of the new jobs created within the first 2 years), you will be eligible to retain 95% tax witholdings for the persons employed in the new jobs.  Under the Act, the employer may select to remit all of the personal income tax witheld from employees then receive a rebate of the tax from the Commonwealth.

Job creators grow while growing the economy in the process.  These tax savings may provide opportunities for employers to further increase their number of employees beyond the initial 250 or reinvest in other areas of the business.  Presumably, the Commonwealth benefits as well.  More persons employed in the Commonwealth lead to economic growth through purchasing power and sales tax revenues.

There are restrictions and critiques.  Non-profit entities, religious organizations, utilities, restaurants/bars, gambling establishments, retail stores, and education or public administration offices need not apply.  Plus, an open question remains whether the program amounts to an employee paying an employer for his/her job.

To take advantage of this opportunity, employers must enter into an agreement with the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED).  Any interested employer should move quickly because the ceiling for the program in Pennsylvania is $5 million per year.  This Act expires January 1, 2018.

Extreme Weather, Natural Disasters and Personnel Issues

What happens when a business is temporarily closed due to extreme weather?  What about overtime as employees try to catch up on work?  These are questions that employers on the East coast find themselves asking in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  William Horwitz, counsel in the Florham Park office, has authored a client alert to answer these and other questions that employers are now faced with.

Read the full alert.

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