The National Labor Relations Board today (December 12, 2019) ordered an administrative law judge to approve settlements resolving complaints against McDonald’s USA LLC, McDonald’s Restaurants of Illinois, Inc. and 29 franchisees that alleged in a series of complaints that McDonald’s Restaurants of Illinois and the franchisees as joint employers. While the order resolves complaints prosecuted over the past three years against the franchisees which also sought to impose joint and several liability against McDonald’s USA LLC and McDonald’s Restaurants of Illinois, Inc. as joint employers, it highlights the continuing joint employer liability risks that franchisors, general contractors and others with significant involvement in other businesses’ operations to potential joint and several liability for NLRA violations by other businesses.
The order available here resolves a series of complaints filed by the unions that alleged that McDonald’s entities and the franchisees as joint employers:
- violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA by threatening food service employees, promising benefits to them, interrogating them, and surveilling their protected activity
- violated Section 8(a)(3) and (1) of the NLRA by unlawfully discharging 3 employees and suspending, reducing work hours of, or sending home early 17 others, all in retaliation for their union and other protected concerted activity;
- Without charging that McDonald’s USA or McDonald’s Restaurants of Illinois with independently violating NLRA, claimed they should be held jointly and severally liable for alleged violations by the franchisees because they allegedly “possessed and/or exercised” sufficient control over the labor relations policies of the franchisees that to constitute joint employers
After nearly three years of proceedings, the NLRB General Counsel and McDonald’s USA, LLC presented a series of informal settlement agreements resolving all the alleged unfair labor practices that among other things would require the 10 franchisees alleged in the consolidated complaints to have committed violations resulting in back pay liability to contribute to a Settlement Fund totaling $250,000 to benefit potential victims of discrimination or retaliation for concerted activity entitled to a monetary remedy as a result of a breach of a settlement agreement. The proposed settlement would hold McDonald’s of Illinois, Inc. liable along with the franchisees. Notably, however, the proposed settlements would not impose joint and several liability on McDonald’s USA, LLC as a joint employer, to contribute to the Settlement Funds, but does impose obligations on McDonald’s USA, LLC to support the remedies agreed to by McDonald’s Restaurants of Illinois and the franchisees in a series of specific ways. Specifically, the settlements would obligate McDonald USA, LLC to collect the funds ordered to fund the Settlement Fund from the Franchisees and deposit them with the NLRB as well as to issue a Special Notice if a Franchisee, within 9 months of approval of its settlement agreement, breaches its settlement agreement obligations by discharging, reducing hours or suspending a worker or engaging in other prohibited conduct like that alleged in the complaint. In the case of such a violation, a worker discriminated against in violation of the settlement could seek reinstatement or make a claim for payment from the Settlement Fund. Additionally, the settlement agreements also would obligate McDonald’s USA, LLC to send a special notice in the event that a franchisee violates the settlement agreements by repeating one of the practices alleged in the charge that would state that, by the conduct described in the Special Notice, the defaulting Franchisee has violated the NLRA and is not in compliance with a settlement agreement. The Special Notice additionally states that McDonald’s “disavows” the conduct “[s]olely in its role as a party to the [s]ettlement [a]greement,” and that its issuance of the Special Notice does not constitute an admission of joint-employer status.
After the administrative law judge refused to approve the proposed settlement agreements despite the recommendation from the NLRB General Counsel , the NLRB reviewed the administrative law judge’s decision on special appeal.
In overturning and ordering the administrative law judge to approve the settlements, NLRB members Marvin E. Kaplan and William J. Emanuel formed the majority that ruled that applying the “reasonableness” factors set forth in Independent Stave, 287 NLRB 740 (1987), the settlement agreements are reasonable, that they provide a full remedy to all affected employees, and that accepting the settlement agreements would serve the policies underlying the NLRA as well as the NRLB’s longstanding policy of encouraging the amicable resolution of disputes. Member Lauren McFerran dissented in this finding.
While the NLRB order to approve the settlement will resolve the pending actions against the McDonald’s entities and its franchisees, the three year prosecution reminds franchisors and other entities of the continuing readiness of the NLRB and union organizers to pursue joint employer prosecution and joint and several liability against franchisors and other entities that it perceives to possess influence or control over the conduct of separately established businesses found to engage in unfair labor practices or other labor law violations. When evaluating these risks, businesses and their leaders should keep in mind that the test for joint employment under the NLRA as well as the Fair Labor Standards Act, makes it much easier to find joint employment than in tax or certain other areas of employment law. Consequently, employers dealing with union organizing or other concerted action and those doing business with them should ensure they have a clear understanding of these rules and take steps to manage their risk to avoid incurring liability for actions of a franchisee or other entity with whom it does business. Businesses and their leaders also should take note that the NLRB under the Trump Administration recently has adopted new rules intended to role back much more aggressive interpretations of the NLRA’s joint employment rule applied by the democrat appointed majority of the NLRB during the Obama Administration. As the McDonald’s prosecutions resolved by today’s order predated this policy change, it remains to be seen how the new rules will effect joint employer prosecutions going forward. Businesses facing organizing, collective bargaining or other union activity potentially covered by the NLRA should proceed with caution to mitigate their potential exposure to charges.
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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 30+ years of management focused employment, employee benefit and insurance, workforce and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.
Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving, Ms. Stamer’s clients include employers and other workforce management organizations; employer, union, association, government and other insured and self-insured health and other employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plans, fiduciaries, administrators, and other plan vendors; domestic and international public and private health care, education and other community service and care organizations; managed care organizations; insurers, third-party administrative services organizations and other payer organizations; and other private and government organizations and their management leaders.
Throughout her 30 plus year career, Ms. Stamer has continuously worked with these and other management clients to design, implement, document, administer and defend hiring, performance management, compensation, promotion, demotion, discipline, reduction in force and other workforce, employee benefit, insurance and risk management, health and safety, and other programs, products and solutions, and practices; establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; manage labor-management relations, comply with requirements, investigate and respond to government, accreditation and quality organizations, regulatory and contractual audits, private litigation and other federal and state reviews, investigations and enforcement actions; evaluate and influence legislative and regulatory reforms and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; prepare and present training and discipline; handle workforce and related change management associated with mergers, acquisitions, reductions in force, re-engineering, and other change management; and a host of other workforce related concerns. Ms. Stamer’s experience in these matters includes supporting these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis with crisis preparedness, intervention and response as well as consulting and representing clients on ongoing compliance and risk management; plan and program design; vendor and employee credentialing, selection, contracting, performance management and other dealings; strategic planning; policy, program, product and services development and innovation; mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcy and other crisis and change management; management, and other opportunities and challenges arising in the course of workforce and other operations management to improve performance while managing workforce, compensation and benefits and other legal and operational liability and performance.
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel and Past Chair of both the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and it’s RPTE Employee Benefits and Other Compensation Group, Ms. Stamer also has leading edge experience in health benefit, health care, health, financial and other plan, program and process design, administration, documentation, contracting, risk management, compliance and related process and systems development, policy and operations; training; legislative and regulatory affairs, and other legal and operational concerns.
A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Pension Privatization Project with extensive domestic and international public policy concerns in pensions, healthcare, workforce, immigration, tax, education and other areas, Ms. Stamer has been extensively involved in U.S. federal, state and local health care and other legislative and regulatory reform impacting these concerns throughout her career. Her public policy and regulatory affairs experience encompasses advising and representing domestic and multinational private sector health, insurance, employee benefit, employer, staffing and other outsourced service providers, and other clients in dealings with Congress, state legislatures, and federal, state and local regulators and government entities, as well as providing advice and input to U.S. and foreign government leaders on these and other policy concerns.
Author of leading works on a multitude of labor and employment, compensation and benefits, internal controls and compliance, and risk management matters and 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 related concerns by her service in the leadership of the Solutions Law Press, Inc. Coalition for Responsible Health Policy, its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, and a broad range of other professional and civic organizations including North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children (now Warren Center For Children); 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, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, past Representative and chair of various committees of ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; an ABA Health Law Coordinating Council representative, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.
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