NLRA

Joint Responsibility: Companies Should Keep an Eye on the Shifting Legal Landscape of Joint Employment

As Congress considers a bill to change the definition of joint employment under two federal statutes, the Supreme Court is poised to decide whether to take up the issue under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the U.S. Department of Labor has withdrawn administrative guidance issued by the prior administration, and several states have enacted or considered joint employment legislation.  In this rapidly evolving legal landscape, companies may want to keep a close eye on a doctrine that can lead to unexpected legal exposure.

Under the concept of joint employment, multiple companies can be considered the employers of a single worker, and thus potentially jointly and severally liable for compliance with employment laws, such as wage-and-hour requirements.  Joint employment can occur in two main contexts: “horizontal” joint employment, when a single employee works for two different but related entities, and “vertical” joint employment, which can arise when workers are obtained by an intermediary to work on behalf of some other entity (for example, when a company uses a subcontractor or a staffing agency).  Surprisingly, there is no single test or source of law for determining whether companies are joint employers; rather, different tests exist under common law and various federal and state statutes.  Even when applying the same statute, courts in different jurisdictions may use diverging standards, making joint employment a tricky and complex issue for companies to navigate.

For example, the federal courts have disagreed about the appropriate formulation of the test for determining joint employment under the FLSA, with different multi-factor tests in use by one or more circuits.  In a case decided earlier this year, DirecTV v. Hall, the Fourth Circuit rejected the approach followed by a number of other circuits and applied a new test, holding that courts must focus on the relationship between putative joint employers, not just the relationship between each entity and a worker.  Under the Fourth Circuit’s new test, joint employment may be found where two or more companies are “not completely disassociated” with respect to the worker’s work—a standard that could lead to widespread findings of joint employment.  This approach could deter companies from using subcontractors or staffing companies or engaging in similar relationships, given the risk that that even indirect influence over a worker’s terms and conditions of work could lead to a finding of joint employment and ensuing liability.  DirectTV has filed a cert petition in the case, and a number of business groups have filed amicus briefs urging the high court to grant the petition.

A brief for a group of organizations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the National Retail Federation highlights the divergence between the Fourth Circuit’s new approach and the tests followed in other circuits, urging the Supreme Court to resolve the circuit split.  The brief argues that geographic consistency in the interpretation of the FLSA is particularly important for companies that do business in multiple regions, and contends that the Fourth Circuit erred by misreading a federal regulation in a manner that even the U.S. Department of Labor has disagreed with.  Possibly signaling interest in taking up the matter, on September 20, 2017, the Supreme Court asked the respondents to file a response, which is due next month.

In the meantime, developments continue elsewhere.  A year and a half after the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division issued an Administrator’s Interpretation under the Obama Administration that took an expansive view of joint employment under the FLSA and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, new U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta recently announced the withdrawal of that interpretation.

A month later, lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the Save Local Business Act (H.R. 3441), which would amend the FLSA and the National Labor Relations Act to provide that a company can be a joint employer only if it “directly, actually, and immediately, and not in a limited and routine manner, exercises significant control over the essential terms and conditions of employment.”  On September 13, 2017, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on the bill, which remains pending.

The controversial 2015 Browning-Ferris decision by the National Labor Relations Board, which upended decades-old precedent on the test for joint employment under the NLRA, remains on appeal at the D.C. Circuit.  Following that decision, a number of states have enacted or considered legislation to provide that a franchisor is generally not the employer of its franchisees or the employees of those franchisees.

Given the rapid pace of these developments, companies should pay close attention to the changing legal landscape and may wish to consult employment counsel for advice on avoiding liability as joint employers.

Supreme Court to Hear Oral Argument in October on Enforceability of Employment Class Action Waivers in Arbitration Agreements

In January, we reported that the Supreme Court granted review of three conflicting Court of Appeal decisions to settle the question of whether an agreement requiring that employees resolve employment-related disputes through individual arbitration violates the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).

Last week, the Supreme Court set oral argument for October 2, 2017 to resolve the circuit split on whether mandatory class action waivers violate the NLRA. The Fifth, Second and Eight Circuits rejected the National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB”) position that class action waivers unlawfully interfere with employees’ NLRA rights to engage in concerted activity. See Murphy Oil USA, Inc. v. NLRB, 808 F.3d. 1013 (5th Cir. 2015); Cellular Sales of Missouri, LLC v. NLRB, 824 F.3d 772 (8th Cir. 2016); Patterson v. Raymours Furniture Co., Inc., 2016 WL 4598542 (2d Cir. Sept. 2, 2016).  The Ninth and Seventh Circuits however, held that an arbitration agreement precluding class actions violates the NLRA and is not preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). See Morris v. Ernst & Young, 834 F. 3d 975 (9th Cit. 2016) Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 823 F.3d 1147 (7th Cir. 2016).  The Ninth Circuit’s opinion distinguishes mandatory class action waivers from those agreements that permit employees to opt-out.

In June, Ernst & Young, Murphy Oil and Epic Systems filed their opening briefs with the Supreme Court, requesting that the Court affirm the Fifth Circuit’s decision and reject the Seventh Circuit’s decision. The companies argued that the FAA requires enforcement of class action waivers because it requires enforcement of agreements to arbitrate according to their terms and the NLRA’s provisions protecting employees’ right to act in concert do not override the FAA. The U.S. Department of Justice filed one of 17 amicus curiae briefs last month in support of the enforceability of class action waivers.  The Department of Justice’s argument that the NLRB’s position contradicts the FAA is especially significant given its previous contrary position under the Obama administration.

DOJ Flips the Switch on Class Waivers in Arbitration Agreements, Signaling Possible Changes to Come

Arbitration agreement form on an office table DOJ Flips the Switch on Class Waivers in Arbitration Agreements, Signaling Possible Changes to Come

On Friday, June 16, 2017, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) filed an amicus brief reflecting a change of heart when it comes to the enforceability of class waivers in arbitration agreements.  In an unprecedented move, President Trump’s acting solicitor general, Jeffrey B. Wall, said his office had “reconsidered the issue and has reached the opposite conclusion” as the Obama administration in a set of consolidated cases currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA Inc. (Docket Nos. 16-285, 16-300, and 16-307).

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Oh F**k: Employee’s Profane Facebook Post is Protected Activity

On April 21, 2017, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) ruling that an employer violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or Act) when it discharged a catering employee for posting a vulgar comment on social media directed at his supervisor. In NLRB v. Pier Sixty, LLC (2d Cir. 2017), the court determined that the employee’s post, under the particular circumstances of the case, was not so “opprobrious” as to lose protection under the NLRA. READ MORE

BREAKING DEVELOPMENT: Supreme Court to Rule on Enforceability of Class Action Waivers in Arbitration Agreements

In August of 2016, we reported that the Ninth Circuit created a deeper circuit-split on whether class action waivers in arbitration agreements violate the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) with its decision in Morris v. Ernst & Young LLP.

As expected, the Supreme Court granted review today of three of the conflicting Court of Appeals decisions. It granted review of the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Murphy Oil USA, Inc. v. NLRB, 808 F.3d 1013 (5th Cir. 2015). The Fifth Circuit rejected the National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB”) position that class action waivers unlawfully interfere with employees’ NLRA rights to engage in concerted activity, agreeing with the Second and Eighth Circuits. The Ninth and Seventh Circuits, on the other hand, adopted the NLRB’s position that class action waivers violate the NLRA.

The Supreme Court also granted review in Morris v. Ernst & Young, 834 F.3d 975 (9th Cir. 2016) and Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 823 F.3d 1147 (7th Cir. 2016). The Seventh Circuit held that an arbitration agreement precluding collective arbitration or collective action violates section 7 of the NLRA and is unenforceable under the FAA. The Ninth Circuit agreed and concluded that compulsory class action waivers violate sections 7 and 8 of the NLRA by limiting workers’ rights to act collectively, noting in footnote 4 that agreements containing an “opt-out” clause for pursuing class claims do not violate the NLRA.

All three cases have been consolidated and will be argued together.

 

Arbitration in Employment Sea Change?: Ninth Circuit Holds Mandatory Class Action Waivers Unlawful

Can employers still require employees to sign arbitration agreements with class action waivers as a condition of employment?  Last week, the Ninth Circuit became the second appellate court to adopt the National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB”) position that class action waivers violate the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) in Morris v. Ernst & Young LLP.

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Seventh Circuit Holds That Mandatory Arbitration With Class Waiver Violates NLRA, Setting up Circuit Split

On May 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that a wage-and-hour class arbitration clause violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), setting up a circuit split with the Fifth Circuit, and opening the door for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on arbitration clauses in employment agreements containing class action waivers.

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“Unpredictable and Potentially Messy”?: NLRB Ruling Could Complicate Employers’ Workplace Investigations

In its June 26 split decision in American Baptist Homes of the West d/b/a Piedmont Gardens and Service Employees International Union, United Healthcare Workers- West, 362 N.L.R.B. No. 139 (Case No. 32-CA-063475) (“Piedmont Gardens”), the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) adopted a new standard for union access to employers’ witness statements in discipline cases.  In so doing, the NLRB overruled the 37-year-old standard articulated in Anheuser- Busch, 237 NLRB 982 (1978), that provided a blanket exemption for the disclosure of witness statements.  Instead of a blanket rule, the majority followed the  Supreme Court’s 1979 decision in Detroit Edison v. NLRB, 440 U.S. 301 (1979), which requires a case-by-case balancing of the union’s need for the witness statements against the employer’s “legitimate and substantial confidentiality interests.”

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Franchisors Beware: NLRB Seeking to Super-Size Joint Employer Liability

The National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB”) General Counsel’s Office has again signaled its commitment to expanding the scope of the current test for joint employment. In a move that could have implications for a broad array of franchise relationships, on December 19, 2014, the General Counsel of the NLRB announced that it has issued complaints against both McDonald’s franchisees and McDonald’s USA, the franchisor, as a joint employer. The decision to name McDonald’s as a respondent is consistent with the General Counsel’s recent advocacy that the current joint employment standard is too narrow.

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NLRB Reverses Course on Employer Email, Creating Presumptive Right of Employees to Use Work Email Systems for Union Organizing

Email

In a game-changing 3-2 decision on December 11, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) overruled its 2007 Register Guard decision, which upheld the right of employers to limit employee access to company email systems, calling it “clearly incorrect” and holding that employees have a presumptive right to use their employers’ email systems for non-business purposes, like communications about union organizing, wages and working conditions, during “nonworking time.”  Register Guard, which has long been criticized by organized labor, held that an employer may completely prohibit employees from using an employer’s email system for Section 7 purposes, even if they are otherwise permitted access to the email system—without demonstrating any business justification—so long as the ban is not applied discriminatorily.

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