Employers beware of potential National Labor Relations Act unfair labor practices risks that may arise from their adoption or enforcement of overly broad or restrictive workplace recording, acceptable use, workplace conduct, commitment-to-integrity or other policies that might be construed to prohibit or deter employees from exercising protected organization or other collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in light of the Fifth Circuit’s July 25, 2017 T-Mobile United States, Inc. v. Nat’l Labor Relations Bd. decision.
In T-Mobile v. NLRB, the Fifth Circuit upheld and ordered the enforcement of a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that telecommunications industry employers T-Mobile and MetroPCS (T-Mobile) engaged in unfair labor practices in violation of Section 8 of the NLRA by maintaining a policy that prohibited all photography and audio or video recording in its workplace without the employer’s prior permission (“Recording Policy”).
The Fifth Circuit’s ruling arose from an appeal filed by T-Mobile with the Fifth Circuit, challenging a NLRB ruling that the Recording Policy, a workplace conduct policy, a commitment-to-integrity policy and an Acceptable Use Policy included in the T-Mobile employee handbook violated the NLRA because “employees would reasonably construe the language to prohibit Section 7 activity and therefore constituted unfair labor practices prohibited under Section 8 of the NLRA. (Note: T-Mobile did not appeal the NLRB’s findings that 7 other policies also violated the NLRA).
While the Fifth Circuit’s decision only upheld the unfair labor practice determination based on the Recording policy, the decision makes clear that its findings concerning each of the four employment policies subject to the appeal as well as other employment policies could come out differently in other cases based on the contextual evidence reflected in the factual record concerning the particular employment policy and the context in which it is implemented and enforced. Employers maintaining or administering similar workplace rules will want to scrutinize carefully their own policies to assess their potential for exposing the employer to unfair labor practice charges and take appropriate action to minimize these risks.
Policies Chilling Organizational Rights Protected By NLRA § 7 Create Unfair Labor Practice Exposures
Section 7 of the NLRA protects workers’ right “to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 157. NLRA § 8(a)(1) makes it an “unfair labor practice” for an employer to “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights” protected by NLRA § 7.
According to existing Fifth Circuit precedent, a workplace rule violates Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA if the rule either:
- “Explicitly restricts activities protected by Section 7″ or
- Employees would reasonably construe the language to prohibit Section 7 activity even if the rule does not explicitly prohibit or has not been enforced to prohibit or restrict Section 7 protected activity.
A careful analysis of the Fifth Circuit’s decision makes clear that its decision about each of the four challenged policies covered by T-Mobile’s appeal turned upon the Court’s careful analysis of the surrounding context under which the applicable policy was implemented and administered reflected in the factual record. While the Fifth Circuit overruled as erroneous the NLRB’s findings that three other challenged policies violated the NLRA under this analysis, it agreed with and ordered enforced the NLRB’s ruling that T-Mobile’s Recording Policy violated the NLRA by impermissibly chilling worker’s exercise of their Section 7 rights. Construing the Acceptable Use Policy as prohibiting all recording in the workplace without the employer’s consent, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the policy would “discourage” a reasonable employee from engaging in protected activity” because a reasonable employee would construe the Policy as prohibiting employee unionizing or other concerted activity protected by the NLRA.
Context Protected Workplace Conduct, Commitment-To-Integrity, No Arguing or Fighting & Acceptable Use Policy
Based upon its review of the contextual facts shown in the record, the Fifth Circuit overruled the NLRB’s unfair labor practice orders with respect to T-Mobile’s workplace conduct, commitment-to- integrity, no argument or fighting and Acceptable Use policies. Employers should note, however, that the Fifth Circuit’s ruling does not give blanket enforcement to the defensibility of these policies in all circumstances. Rather, noting that “context matters” when determining whether a work rule violates the NLRA, the court found the policies read in the context of the workplace established common sense civility guidelines that a reasonable employee would not read as chilling or discouraging organization activities protected under Section 7. Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit declined to enforce the NLRB’s unfair labor practice orders against T-Mobile with respect to those policies in this instance. Employers considering the implications on this decision on their own policies should keep in mind, however, that the Fifth Circuit based its decision on the context reflected by the facts in the record. Accordingly, there remains a risk that these or other policies could be found to violate the NLRB if adopted or administered under circumstances that could chill reasonable workers from exercising their Section 7 organizational rights.
Context Invalidated Recording Policy
The critical significance of the factual context in determining the defensibility of each of these policies under Sections 7 and 8(a) of the NLRA is driven home by the Fifth Circuit’s explanation in the opinion of its decision to enforce the NLRB’s order with respect to the following Recording Policy as well as its explanation of its distinguishability from the Acceptable Use Policy that the Fifth Court found permitted.:
To prevent harassment, maintain individual privacy, encourage open communication, and protect confidential information employees are prohibited from recording people or confidential information using cameras, camera phones/devices, or recording devices (audio or video) in the workplace. Apart from customer calls that are recorded for quality purposes, employees may not tape or otherwise make sound recordings of work-related or workplace discussions. Exceptions may be granted when participating in an authorized [T-Mobile] activity or with permission from an employee’s Manager, HR Business Partner, or the Legal Department. If an exception is granted, employees may not take a picture, audiotape, or videotape others in the workplace without the prior notification of all participants.
In determining this Recording Policy impermissibly deterred employees from exercising their Section 7 rights in violation of the NLRA, the Fifth Circuit’s opinion makes clear that “the broad reach of the recording ban” strongly influenced this determination, stating:
The ban, by its plain language, encompasses any and all photography or recording on corporate premises at any time without permission from a supervisor. This ban is, by its own terms alone, stated so broadly that a reasonable employee, generally aware of employee rights, would interpret it to discourage protected concerted activity, such as even an off-duty employee photographing a wage schedule posted on a corporate bulletin board. …
Unlike the “workplace conduct” policy and the “commitment-to-integrity” policy, the recording policy forbids certain forms of clearly protected activity. We have earlier held that held those two policies would not be interpreted by a reasonable T-Mobile employee as forbidding protected activity. By contrast, a reasonable T-Mobile employee, aware of his legal rights, would read the language of the recording policy as plainly forbidding a means of engaging in protected activity.
In the face of this possibility, the Court similarly considered the factual record before rejecting T-Mobile’s argument that the Policy was defensible to promote its legitimate business interests “[t]o prevent harassment, maintain individual privacy, encourage open communication, and protect confidential information” on the grounds that “merely reciting such justifications does not alter the fact that the operative language of the rule on its face prohibits protected Section 7 activity, including Section 7 activity wholly unrelated to those stated interests.”
In reaching this determination, the Fifth Circuit distinguished these findings from its findings with regard to the Acceptable Use policy. In explaining its finding the Acceptable Use Policy valid, the Fifth Circuit’s opinion explains that the NLRB’s decision concerning the Acceptable Use Policy disregarded the context in which the acceptable use policy is to be read and understood, stating:
The “Scope” section of the acceptable use policy explicitly states that the policy “applies to all non-public T-Mobile information.” Thus the policy only prohibits employees from sharing non-public information.
Where a company policy prohibits the disclosure of non-public information, courts presume that a reasonable employee would not construe the policy to prohibit the disclosure of information that may be properly used in protected activity, such as wage and benefit information, so long as the policy does not explicitly state that it encompasses such information. … Here… the policy does not define “non-public T-Mobile information” in a way that would lead a reasonable worker to believe that it includes protected wage and benefit information. Instead, the policy only applies to the sort of proprietary business information that an employer may properly restrict its employees from sharing outside of the company. …
Thus the NLRB’s finding that a reasonable worker would construe the acceptable use policy to discourage protected activity is unreasonable, and we deny enforcement as to that part of its order.
Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit upheld enforcement of the NLRB’s order striking down the Recording Policy but denied enforcement and overruled the NLRB’s unfair labor practice finding with regard to the other three policies.
Contextual Basis of Decision Requires Employer Tread Carefully, Manage Risks
While the Fifth Circuit only enforced the NLRB’s unfair labor practice finding with respect to T-Mobile’s Recording Policy in T-Mobile, the opinion makes clear that similar or identical policies could be treated differently depending upon whether the contextual evidence reflects that the policy could be reasonably construed by employees as prohibiting or restricting conduct protected by Section 7 of the NLRA. Employers maintaining or administering similar workplace rules will want to scrutinize carefully their own policies to assess their potential for exposing the employer to unfair labor practice charges and take appropriate action to minimize these risks.
About The Author
Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for management work, coaching, teachings, and publications.
Ms. Stamer works with businesses and their management, employee benefit plans, governments and other organizations deal with all aspects of human resources and workforce, internal controls and regulatory compliance, change management and other performance and operations management and compliance. Her day-to-day work encompasses both labor and employment issues, as well as independent contractor, outsourcing, employee leasing, management services and other nontraditional service relationships. She supports her clients both on a real-time, “on demand” basis and with longer term basis to deal with all aspects for workforce and human resources management, including, recruitment, hiring, firing, compensation and benefits, promotion, discipline, compliance, trade secret and confidentiality, noncompetition, privacy and data security, safety, daily performance and operations management, emerging crises, strategic planning, process improvement and change management, investigations, defending litigation, audits, investigations or other enforcement challenges, government affairs and public policy.
Well-known for her extensive work with health, insurance, financial services, technology, energy, manufacturing, retail, hospitality, governmental and other highly regulated employers, her nearly 30 years’ of experience encompasses domestic and international businesses of all types and sizes.
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on these and other concerns by her service as a management consultant, business coach and consultant and policy strategist as well through her leadership participation in professional and civic organizations such her involvement as the Vice Chair of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association; Executive Director of the Coalition on Responsible Health Policy and its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; former Gulf Coast TEGE Council Exempt Organization Coordinator; a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence; former board member and Vice President of the Managed Care Association; past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; a member and policy adviser to the National Physicians’ Council for Healthcare Policy; current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee; current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section; Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section; ABA Real Property Probate and Trust (RPTE) Section former Employee Benefits Group Chair, immediate past RPTE Representative to ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative, and Defined Contribution Committee Co-Chair, past Welfare Benefit Committee Chair and current Employee Benefits Group Fiduciary Responsibility Committee Co-Chair, Substantive and Group Committee member, Membership Committee member and RPTE Representative to the ABA Health Law Coordinating Council; past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee; a former member of the Board of Directors, Treasurer, Member and Continuing Education Chair of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.
Ms. Stamer also is a widely published author, highly popular lecturer, and serial symposia chair, who publishes and speaks extensively on human resources, labor and employment, employee benefits, compensation, occupational safety and health, and other leadership, performance, regulatory and operational risk management, public policy and community service concerns for the American Bar Association, ALI-ABA, American Health Lawyers, Society of Human Resources Professionals, the Southwest Benefits Association, the Society of Employee Benefits Administrators, the American Law Institute, Lexis-Nexis, Atlantic Information Services, The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), InsuranceThoughtLeaders.com, Benefits Magazine, Employee Benefit News, Texas CEO Magazine, HealthLeaders, the HCCA, ISSA, HIMSS, Modern Healthcare, Managed Healthcare, Institute of Internal Auditors, Society of CPAs, Business Insurance, Employee Benefits News, World At Work, Benefits Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other symposia and publications. She also has served as an Editorial Advisory Board Member for human resources, employee benefit and other management focused publications of BNA, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com and many other prominent publications and speaks and conducts training for a broad range of professional organizations and for clients on the Advisory Boards of InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, and many other publications.
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