11th Circuit Disagrees With NLRB And Finds Nurses Are "Supervisors" In Lakeland Health Care Decision

Several weeks ago the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit weighed in on the ongoing debate in labor law over the definition of who is a “supervisor,” and therefore not eligible to join a union, under the federal National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). The opinion, Lakeland Health Care Associates , is but the latest installment in an area of labor law that has been evolving over at least the past decade.  While this line of cases, including Lakeland Health Care, are specific to the “supervisor” status of nurses working in the residential care industry, the relevant legal tests are the same for all industries. Employers who may wish to oppose unionization efforts among employees it believes are supervisors will therefore want to continue to pay close attention to these cases to see what could be done to maximize the chance that the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) would also find those employees are supervisors. 

LPNs Supervise Other Employees, But Are They “Supervisors” Under The NLRA?

As with many things in labor law, determining who is a “supervisor” is rarely straightforward: simply giving someone the title of “supervisor” is never enough. In many cases employees may have only partial supervisory authority—the issue in cases like Lakeland Health Care is whether the employees had enough supervisory authority to be “supervisors” under the NLRA.

Lakeland Health Care operates residential care facilities (until recently known commonly as “nursing homes”). Consistent with industry-wide practice, Lakeland Health Care staffs its facility primarily with Certified Nursing Assistants (“CNAs”), who perform most of the day-to-day work providing physical care to residents—such as feeding, dressing, bathing, turning, etc.—and charge nurses, usually Licensed Practical Nurses (“LPNs”) or sometimes Registered Nurses (“RNs”), who provide basic medical care to residents such as administering medication, inserting or monitoring intravenous lines, and performing blood draws. Also consistent with industry practice, the RNs and LPNs have general day-to-day supervision over the CNAs with whom they work each shift, but do not have independent hire/fire authority.

Section 2(11) of the NLRA and related case law has a very detailed and complex definition of who is a “supervisor.” To summarize, a “supervisor” is any employee who has the authority to hire, fire, discipline, or assign work to other employees, or to effectively recommend any of those actions, or who “responsibly direct[s]” other employees in their day-to-day work. The supervisor must also use “independent judgment” in performing those supervisory functions and not merely report employee conduct to higher level managers to take action.  Those who meet the "supervisors" tests are not "employees" eligible to organize into unions under the NLRA.

After reviewing the testimony of company witnesses, and employee handbooks and written job descriptions, the 11th Circuit concluded, in contrast to the NLRB, that the Lakeland Health Care LPNs were supervisors under that NLRA definition. Specifically, the Court found that even though LPNs could not hire or fire CNAs, they could independently issue them written and verbal coaching (i.e., discipline) and assign work. The Court also found that LPNs “responsibly directed” CNAs in their day-to-day work in that the LPN ultimately could be held responsible, and disciplined, if the CNAs failed to provide adequate care to residents. The Court found that the LPNs exercised sufficient “independent judgment” in performing all of these functions with respect to CNAs.

A Brief Recent History Of “Supervisor” Status

The supervisory status of charge nurses in the residential care industry has been the subject of much labor litigation over the past 10 years (perhaps because that industry has specifically been targeted for organization drives by many major national and local unions). While the reasoning in Lakeland Health Care summarized above may sound straight-forward, other cases with nearly identical facts have reached very differently results. These differing outcomes make it difficult for employers to know when employees are supervisors, and appear to be largely influenced by two factors.

First, the NLRB’s own interpretation of the law can change dramatically over time depending on whether a pro-union Democrat or pro-business Republican is President. For example, in 2006 the Bush-era Board issued employer-friendly decisions that broadly applied the “supervisor” exception in its Oakwood Health Care “trilogy” (also involving the status of charge nurses in residential care facilities). In so doing, Oakwood Health Care departed from Clinton-era NLRB decisions that had made it much more difficult to show that employees like LPNs are “supervisors.” In recent years, the Obama Board has distinguished Oakwood Health Care to turn back the clock to the broader Clinton-era interpretations of “supervisor.” Perhaps most difficult, the NLRB rarely outright reverses earlier opinions, but instead tries to find subtle factual nuances to harmonize its decisions, even though the different outcomes sometimes seem to be based on very similar factual patterns. 

Second, there is also tension between the (generally pro-union) NLRB and the federal circuit courts, which have jurisdiction to reverse those decisions and may tend to be more pro-employer. For example, the 11th Circuit in Lakeland Health Care specifically held that the employer must only show that the LPNs have the authority to perform the supervisory functions (through written job descriptions, handbooks, and the testimony of managers), not that they demonstrate a practice of actually having used that authority in specific cases. That holding may be a departure from recent cases where the Board found under virtually identical facts that charge nurses were not supervisors, because, even though written policies and job descriptions showed they had supervisory authority, they did not actually discipline CNAs, or did not do so often enough. 

Back To The Future:  More Conflicting Decisions To Come?

It will be interesting to see how the Obama Board will respond to the 11th Circuit’s opinion in Lakeland Health Care.  As we have blogged about repeatedly, the current Obama Board has been very active, tends to be pro-union, and is not afraid of taking positions potentially at odds with federal courts, even the U.S. Supreme Court.  And the NLRB could only be emboldened now that President Obama has won re-election. It is therefore difficult to see how this tug-of-war will play out.  Maybe the only thing that is certain is that more fireworks are likely over the next few months and years in this area.

In the meantime, Lakeland Health Care may offer some help to employers who wish to oppose unionization efforts involving potentially supervisory employees.  While circuit court opinions are not technically binding on the NLRB or its regional offices, they can be persuasive authority.  Also, while this line of cases is particularly relevant for employers like Lakeland in residential care, the “supervisor” tests are the same everywhere.  Employers in all industries may wish to pay particular attention to the weight the 11th Circuit gave to the handbooks and written job descriptions, which helped show that the LPNs in that case had the necessary supervisory authority, and revise their own written job descriptions if needed. If you find yourself in an NLRB hearing involving the supervisory status of employees, the quality of your written job descriptions and handbooks could help make the difference in proving your case.

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