11th Circuit Extends Epic Systems to Interrogation Claims

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
NLRA NLRB collective actions Epic Systems Alabama Employment Law
If an employee waives the right to a collective action, an employer does not violate the NLRA by interrogating the employee about conversations concerning collective actions.

On May 21, 2018, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S.Ct. 1612 (2018).  The Court held that employer-employee agreements do not violate the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), even if they contain class and collective action waivers and stipulate that employment disputes must resolved by individualized arbitration.  On July 31, 2018, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals logically extended Epic Systems to interrogation claims under the NLRA.  See Franks v. National Labor Relations Board, No. 16-10644, 2018 WL 3640818 (Jul. 31, 2018).

While employed by Samsung Electronics America (“Samsung”), Jorgie Franks spoke to multiple co-workers about the possibility of filing a collective action against Samsung for failing to pay overtime.  Those conversations made their way to ear of Samsung’s Human Resources Business Partner, who called and e-mailed Franks about her communications with co-workers.

In January 2015, long before the Supreme Court released Epic Systems, Franks filed a claim with the National Labor Relations Board asserting three violations of the NLRA.  First, she claimed that her employment agreement impermissibly required her to waive class and collective actions.  Second, she claimed that Samsung’s Human Resources Business Partner interrogated her in violation of the NLRA.  Finally, she claimed that the Human Resources Business Partner wrongfully issued a “do not talk order.”  On February 3, 2016, the NLRB found in Ms. Franks’s favor on the first two claims, but ruled that Samsung did not issue a “do not talk order.”

Samsung and Franks both appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, but the focus of the Franks opinion was the NLRA interrogation claim.  The Eleventh Circuit relied upon Epic Systems to quickly reverse the NLRB on the issue of waiving collection action rights.  Then, the court focused on the interplay between Epic Systems and Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.  “An employer violates section 8(a)(1) of the Act by coercively interrogating its employees about their [protected] activities.”  “An interrogation is coercive if, in light of ‘all the surrounding circumstances, ‘its probable effect’ tends to interfere with the employees exercise of their [rights under § 7 of the NLRA.]”

In Franks, the Section 7 right in question was “the ‘protected activity of bringing a collective action lawsuit’ against Samsung.”  Yet, under Epic Systems, “Franks validly forfeited the right to pursue a collective action against Samsung when she signed Samsung’s employment agreement.”  “Put simply, Franks’ interference claim fails because she had already given up the very right with which Samsung allegedly interfered.”

In a footnote, the Eleventh Circuit was careful to limit its decision to “the protected activity of filing and participating in a collective action lawsuit.”  Nevertheless, Franks is an important extension of Epic Systems and suggests that employees can be interrogated about any NLRA rights that they have waived in their employment agreements.

 

Supreme Court Gives Big Win to Employers Over Unions

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Supreme Court Unions agency fees labor law Alabama Employment Law
Public sector unions cannot require non-members to pay “agency fees.”

Today, the United States Supreme Court provided employers with a big win over labor unions.  In Janus v. AFSCME, the Court ruled that the First Amendment rights of non-union members were violated when they were forced to pay “agency fees” to support union activities.  Here’s a link to a Chicago Sun-Times article discussing the decision:  Government Workers No Longer Have to Pay “Fair Share” Fees.

An “agency fee” is also called a “fair share fee” or a “service fee.”  Those fees are imposed on employees who refuse to join a union in a workplace that is subject to a collective bargaining agreement.  Typically, those fees are imposed where the union is deemed the “exclusive representative” of all employees in a bargaining unit, including employees who decline to join the union.  In theory, non-union employees gain the benefit of union-negotiated wages and benefits.  Therefore, the “agency fee” is imposed so that non-union employees pay an amount equal to the union’s costs of collective bargaining and contract administration.  After the Janus decision, “agency fees” can no longer be imposed on employees in public sector jobs.

The impact of the Janus case for most employers in Alabama is minimal.  Alabama is a “right to work” state.  As a result, mandatory “agency fees” are generally impermissible in Alabama.  See Alabama Code § 25-7-34.  Potentially, this ruling might impact workers at “federal enclaves” in Alabama like Fort Rucker or Redstone Arsenal.  In many areas of those enclaves, the federal government possesses exclusive jurisdiction, and federal law can trump Alabama’s “right to work” laws.  But see Professional Helicopter Pilots Assoc. v. Lear Siegler Svcs., Inc., 326 F.Supp.2d 1305 (M.D. Ala. 2004)(find that Alabama’s “right to work” law controlled over Shell Field at Fort Rucker, because Alabama did not cede exclusive jurisdiction over that land).

Arbitration Isn’t Always Good for Employers

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
arbitration Alabama Employment Law
In employment cases, arbitrators frequently enter decisions that are not employer-friendly.

Business owners frequently think that arbitration agreements are good for business.  That belief is fostered by pro-business organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which actually advocates for arbitration of employment disputes here:  Protect Employment Arbitration Agreements

Certainly, in some circumstances, arbitration agreements are good things.  They can offset difficult venues, or employee-friendly judges.  But, in life, there is a cost that comes with almost every benefit.  In my experience, employment law arbitrators tend to “split the baby” and enter decisions under which nobody obtains a complete “victory.”  For example, the arbitrator might reverse a termination decision and impose a ten-day suspension instead.   In some cases, the arbitrator doesn’t even compromise, and instead flat-out reverses an employer’s reasonable termination decision.

That’s what happened recently in Peco Foods, Inc. v. Retail Wholesale and Dep’t Store Union Mid-South Council, No. 17-13269, 2018 WL 1324860 (11th Cir. Mar. 15, 2018). In Peco Foods, a supervisor reminded employees during a safety meeting that throwing ice was prohibited during work hours.  In response, Larry Richardson said:  “I don’t throw ice, I throw lead.”  Richardson’s employer interpreted that statement as a threat of gun violence and terminated his employment.  Richardson’s union filed a grievance challenging the termination, and an arbitrator reversed the decision — finding that the statement was not a threat.

Richardson’s employer appealed the arbitration decision to federal court.  But, courts are extremely reluctant to overturn arbitration decision.  Nevertheless, the employer argued that threats of workplace violence are so serious that the courts should reinstate the termination as a matter of public policy.  The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument, primarily because there were factual disputes over whether Richardson’s statement was actually a threat.

Employers with unionized facilities frequently can’t avoid arbitration agreements.  But, other employers should think carefully and consult with counsel before embracing arbitration of employment-related disputes.

 

Recording Conversations: Employment Law and Legal Ethics

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Employee recording conversation terminate termination Alabama employment law
Employees can use various electronic devices to secretly record conversations in the workplace.

I frequently get calls from clients who suspect that their employees are recording conversations in the workplace.  Those clients almost always ask whether it is “legal” for employees to secretly record conversations.  To that question, I always give the same lawyerly answer:  “It depends.”

Generally, it is not a crime in Alabama for a person who is a party to a conversation to secretly record that conversation.  It is generally illegal for a non-party to record a conversation.  Thus, in general terms, an employee can secretly record any conversation that they take part in.  But, the employee cannot “bug” an office and secretly listen to discussions between other people.

The bigger question is:  What can be done about employees who are making secret recordings?  For the risk-adverse employer, the answer is:  very little.  An employer might attempt to adopt a “no recording” policy.  But, the National Labor Relations Board has found that such policies restrict the ability of employees to engage in protected, concerted activity for formation of unions.  Here is a good discussion from the Society for Human Resource Management on the NLRB’s decision:  Employers Can’t Prohibit Recording  So, if an employer prohibits recordings in the workplace, it risks violating the National Labor Relations Act.

The issue of secret recordings also became an issue in a recent case before United States District Court Judge David Proctor:  Smith v. Haynes & Haynes, No. 2;14-cv-01334-RDP, 2017 WL 3613045 (N.D. Ala. Aug. 22, 2017).  In that case, the issue did not involve secret recording of employees.  Instead, the employee’s lawyer secretly recorded the employer’s lawyer as they discussed the merits of the case.  Judge Proctor clearly was not happy:  “Surreptitious taping of anyone in a case before the undersigned by an officer of this court is not appropriate. … [T]he court considers it a violation of the ethical duties of counsel admitted to this court.”  In short, at least in Judge Proctor’s court, lawyers will be held to a higher standard than employees in the workplace.

NLRB: Drop the F-Bomb and Keep Your Job

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
F-Bomb NLRA NLRB
The NLRA may protect an employee who drops an F-Bomb about his supervisor.

What would you do if one of your employees made the following comment about a manager on Facebook?

Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER F!$%@& don’t know how to talk to people! ! ! ! ! ! F!@$ his mother and his entire f!@$ng family! ! ! ! What a LOSER! ! ! ! Vote YES for the UNION! ! ! ! ! ! !

Most employers would probably fire the employee, and that’s exactly the course of action taken by the employer in NLRB v. Pier Sixty, LLC, No. 15–1841–ag (L), 2017 WL 1445028 (7th Cir. Apr. 21, 2017).  But, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) found that the employee engaged in protected, concerted activity and ordered his reinstatement with back pay.  The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed last week.

Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act grants employees the right to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection. That right applies to non-unionized workers as well as unionized workers.   Sections 8(a)(1) and 8(a)(3) of the NLRA, prohibit employers from discharging employees for participating in protected, union-related activity under Section 7.

But, not all statements made in the course of union activity are protected.  “[E]ven an employee engaged in ostensibly protected activity may act ‘in such an abusive manner that he loses the protection’ of the NLRA.”  Pier Sixty, 2017 WL 1445028 at *5.  Nevertheless, the Seventh Circuit in Pier Sixty found that the employee’s statements were not sufficiently “abusive” for him to lose the NLRA’s protection.  The Court relied upon three factors in affirming the NLRB.  First, the “subject matter” of the statement concerned workplace conditions — treatment of employees by management and a union election.  Second, Pier Sixty consistently tolerated profanity from employees, and never sanctioned an employee for profanity before this occasion.  Third, the “location” of the employee’s comments was an online forum, “which a key medium of communication among coworkers and a tool for organization in the modern era.”  Id. at *8.

The Court tried to limit the impact of its ruling by finding that this case involved the “outer-bounds of protected, union-related comments, and any test for evaluating ‘opprobrious conduct’ must be sufficiently sensitive to employers’ legitimate disciplinary interests.”  Id.

Obviously, context is key.  A employee who randomly complains about a manager’s deficiencies on Facebook will almost have less protection than an employee who is engage in union-organizing activities.  And, the union organization was clearly the factor that tipped the scale in Pier Sixty.  Even so, Pier Sixty provides a cautionary tale for employers, who should proceed cautiously before terminating an employee on the basis of Facebook comments.

 

Union Efforts Under the NLRA Just Got Easier at Mercedes

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Mercedes Union NLRA
Union efforts at the Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama just got easier under the NLRA.

Efforts to unionize the Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama just got easier under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).  See Mercedes-Benz U.S. Int’l, Inc. v. UAW, No. 15-10291, 2016 WL 5728329 (11th Cir. Oct. 3, 2016).  In the Mercedes opinion, the Eleventh Circuit reviewed a decision by the National Labor Relations Board and focused on union solicitation by employees and distribution of union literature by employees.

Generally, under the NLRA, employers like Mercedes cannot prohibit employees, who are not on working time, from soliciting other employees to join a union.  Also, an employer cannot prohibit distribution of union literature by employees in non-working areas on non-working time.  Nevertheless, an employer may prohibit distribution of union literature in working areas.

The Eleventh Circuit first found that the following Mercedes policy improperly restricted union solicitation:

MBUSI prohibits solicitation and/or distribution of non-work related materials by Team Members during work time or in working areas.

Mercedes, 2016 WL 5728329 at *2.  The Court found that employees would reasonably understand that policy to prohibit union solicitation.  Such a policy is presumed to be unlawful, but an employer like Mercedes can rebut that presumption by proving that it clearly conveyed its intent to permit solicitation — despite the language of the policy.  The Eleventh Circuit found that Mercedes did not meet its burden, and enforced the NLRB’s order holding the policy unlawful.

The Eleventh Circuit gave Mercedes a minor win with regard to distribution of union literature.  The Mercedes facility has 19 “Team Centers” which are adjacent to the Mercedes production line.  For brief periods each day, those centers are used as break areas for employees.  At all other times, the “Team Centers” are work areas.  A Mercedes employee was verbally reprimanded for distributing union literature in a “Team Center” during a break period.  Based upon that reprimand, the NLRB found that Mercedes was violating the NLRA in each of its 19 Team Centers.

The Eleventh Circuit modified that result.  The Court found that the Team Center where the employee was reprimanded might be a non-work area during the brief break periods.  Therefore, the Court remanded the case to the NLRB to determine if that Team Center could be a non-work area (called a “converted mixed-use area”) during the breaks.  Yet, the Court also found that it was improper to characterize all 19 “Team Centers” as non-work areas.  Instead, the NLRB only presented evidence regarding one “Team Center” and declined to present evidence on the other 18.  The Eleventh Circuit ruled that it was improper to characterize the other 18 “Team Centers” as non-work areas in the absence of additional evidence.

The Mercedes opinion provides a reminder to Alabama employers to review their policies to ensure that the policies do not restrict union solicitation in violation of the NLRA.  It also provides guidance on mix-used work areas, and employers should be careful in applying their non-distribution rules in those areas.

11th Cir: No Snatching Victories from Jaws of Arbitration Defeats

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Labor arbitration and court victories
The Eleventh Circuit Discourages Parties From Trying to Snatch Court Victories From Arbitration Defeats

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued an entertaining opinion reinforcing its presumption that courts should not overturn arbitration decisions in labor disputes.  Wiregrass Metal Trade Council AFL-CIO v. Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure, Inc., No. 15-11662, 2016 WL 4702017 (11th Cir. Sept. 8, 2016).  In Wiregrass, an arbitrator ordered reinstatement of an employee who was terminated from employment, but a federal district court reversed that decision.  Chief Judge Ed Carnes provided this introduction to the case:

A dispute involving the interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement was submitted to an arbitrator, as both parties had agreed their disputes would be. As usually happens, the losing party was not happy with the loss. See Saturn Telecommunications Servs., Inc. v. Covad Communications Co., 560 F.Supp.2d 1278, 1279 (S.D. Fla. 2008) (Jordan, J.) (“Everyone supposedly loves arbitration. At least until arbitration goes badly.”). As too often happens, instead of accepting it and moving on, the loser moved the district court to set aside the arbitration award, which it did. Then the former winner, who had become a loser, appealed that decision to this Court. We reverse the district court’s decision and restore the polarity of the parties to the status they were in when they left arbitration. We do so because of the law’s insistence that arbitration losers who resort to the courts continue to lose in all but the most unusual circumstances, of which this is not one.

Wiregrass, 2016 WL 4702017 at *1.

The employee in Wiregrass was a government contractor at a federal facility, and he was terminated for possessing government property without authorization.  The arbitrator ordered him reinstated to employment, because he did not know that the property in question was government-owned.  The federal district court reversed the arbitrator, because the arbitration agreement did not contain language requiring knowledge that the property was government-owned.

As a result, the appeal focused primarily upon whether the arbitrator interpreted the arbitration agreeement to include a knowledge requirement, or if she modified the agreement to impose a knowledge requirement when none was intended.  Interpretations by arbitrators are permissible, but modifications of the agreement are not.  Judge Carnes recognized that the arbitrator’s decision could be plausibly viewed as either a modification or an interpretation:

Given what we have and what we don’t have from the arbitrator, one could fairly characterize her decision as an interpretation of the agreement or as a modification of it. One characterization is as fair as the other. So we are, like Buridan’s ass, stuck between two equally plausible choices. Did the arbitrator interpret the possession policy and discover an implied knowledge requirement, or did she impermissibly modify the policy by simply adding that requirement?

Wiregrass, 2016 WL 4702017 at * 6.  Despite that dilemma, Judge Carnes found guidance in the Supreme Court’s decision in United Steelworkers of Am. v. Enterprise Wheel & Car Corp., 363 U.S. 593 (1960).

The rule of Enterprise Wheel is that, when it is “not apparent” from the arbitrator’s stated reasoning (or lack thereof) whether she permissibly interpreted a collective bargaining agreement or impermissibly modified it, and one can plausibly read the award either way, the court must resolve the ambiguity by finding that the award is an interpretation of the contract and enforcing it. The rule reflects a strong, albeit not irrebuttable, presumption that the arbitrator has interpreted the agreement instead of modifying it.

Wiregrass, 2016 WL 4702017 at *6.  Judge Carnes concluded by reinforcing the presumption that arbitration awards should be upheld:

The Enterprise Wheel presumption, which we apply today, helps keep the promise of arbitration. By presuming, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that an arbitrator’s award rested on an interpretation and not a modification of an agreement, we discourage parties from trying to snatch court victories from the jaws of arbitration defeats.

Id. at *7.

Wiregrass is an entertaining and informative review of the Eleventh Circuit’s presumption in favor of arbitration decisions.  In this case, that presumption favored the employee, because the arbitrator awarded reinstatement.  Nevertheless, in future decisions, the presumption could easily work in favor of the employer.

 

 

 

 

Employees Have 6 Months To Enforce Arbitration Awards

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Gavel and dollar sign from arbitration dispute
Arbitration of Employment Law Disputes

Employees have only six (6) months to ask a Judge to enforce an arbitration award that is entered under a collective bargaining agreement.  See Harris v. Oak Grove Resources, LLC, No. 2:16-cv-00015-JEO, 2016 WL 3997254 (N.D. Ala. Jul. 26, 2015).  Anthony Harris relied upon a collective bargaining agreement to contest his termination from employment.  On June 21, 2013, an arbitrator ordered Mr. Harris reinstated to employment with back pay.  The arbitrator ordered the parties to negotiate the amount of back pay owed to Mr. Harris, and agreed to keep his file open until February 15, 2014 to resolve any disputes.

Mr. Harris claimed that Oak Grove refused to negotiate, and instead unilaterally issued him a check on February 28, 2014 in an amount below what Mr. Harris claimed was owed.  Mr. Harris then waited until December 3, 2015 to file a claim in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, Alabama seeking “enforcement” of the arbitration award.

Oak Grove removed the case to federal court and argued that Mr. Harris’s state law claims should be dismissed because they were preempted by Section 301(a) of the Labor Management Relations Act.  Magistrate Judge John Ott agreed, finding:  “an employee’s claim for enforcement of an arbitration award rendered under a collective bargaining agreement [is] preempted by section 301(a) of the LMRA.”  After reaching that conclusion, Judge Ott further relied upon other authorities to hold that an employee possesses only six months from the time a section 301 claim accrues to assert a claim.

In this case, Mr. Harris’s claim would have accrued at least by February 28, 2014 — when Oak Grove sent the check.  But, Mr. Harris waited a year and ten months from that date to seek enforcement of the award.  As a result, Judge Ott found that Mr. Harris’s claim was barred by the six-month statute of limitations.

Harris and the authorities relied upon by Judge Ott provide employers and employees with a definite, fixed timeline to resolve any disputes related to an arbitration.  Employees who fail to assert their rights within that six-month timeline do so at their own peril.

 

Employers Relocating a Unionized Facility Have a Duty To Bargain in New Location

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Labor

Employers relocating a unionized facility have a duty to collectively bargain with the union at the new location.  See National Labor Relations Board v. Gaylord Chemical Co., No. 15-10006, 2016 WL 3127087 (11th Cir. Jun. 3, 2016).   “Generally, if an employer relocates and the new plant is considered merely a continuation of the old one, the employer must continue to recognize and bargain with the union which represented the employees at the old plant.”  Gaylord Chemical, 2016 WL 3127087 at *4.  In determining if a new plant is a “continuation” of a closed facility, the NLRB and Courts look “to whether the employer has maintained the same ‘operational methods, managerial hierarchy, customers, and services or products,’ as well as ‘changes in either the size, makeup, or the identity of the employee complement.'”  Id. at *5.  Generally, if employees transferring from the closed plant constitute 40% of the new facility’s workforce, the NLRB and courts will find a continuity of workforce.  Id.

In Gaylord Chemical, the employer closed a plant in Bogalusa, Louisiana and relocated it to a new plant inTuscaloosa, Alabama.  Ninety percent of the employees at the Tuscaloosa plant were former Bogalusa employees.  The United Steel Workers were the collective bargaining unit for the Bogalusa plant, but Gaylord Chemical refused to bargain with the USW in Tuscaloosa.  In an extensive analysis, the Eleventh Circuit found that the Tuscaloosa plant was a continuation of the Bogalusa facility and that Gaylord Chemical had an obligation to bargain with the USW.

Certain parts of Alabama are perceived to be less “union friendly” than others.  Thus, there might be a temptation for some employers to close unionized plants and move to those parts of Alabama.  Nevertheless, Gaylord Chemical demonstrates that merely relocating a facility cannot achieve elimination of a union.