Where There Is At-Will, There Is A Way: NLRB Issues New Guidance On "At Will" Employment Policies

On Halloween, the National Labor Relations Board (“Board”) General Counsel’s Division of Advice handed out a rare treat to employers by issuing two Advice Memos (Mimi's Café, Case No. 28-CA-0844365 and Rocha Transportation, Case No. 32-CA-086799), deeming two particular (and common forms of) at-will employment policies contained in employee handbooks lawful under the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act").  

Earlier this year, an Administrative Law Judge frightened many employers by ruling a particular company’s “at-will” policy violated the Act because it theoretically could make employees believe that they could not form a union or otherwise advocate to change their at-will employment status. That challenged policy stated, “I further agree that the at-will employment relationship cannot be amended, modified or altered in any way.” The case, American Red Cross Arizona Blood Services Division, Case No. 28-CA-23443 (February 1, 2012), was settled before the NLRB could review it on appeal. 

The Division of Advice’s Halloween memoranda distinguished American Red Cross case from Mimi's Café and Rocha Transportation – noting that the at-will policy in American Red Cross used the personal pronoun “I” (“I further agree that the at-will employment relationship cannot be amended, modified or altered in any way”), which as written essentially constituted an impermissible waiver of any right of employees to try and change at-will status (i.e., to try to form a union).  The Division of Advice also noted that the policy in American Red Cross declared that the at-will employment relationship could never be modified under any circumstances whatsoever, which could be interpreted as chilling employees’ rights under the Act to engage in protected concerted activity such as forming a union.   Finally, the Division of Advice, perhaps dismissively, noted that American Red Cross had settled before getting to the Board level.

In contrast, in the two cases and policies analyzed by the Division of Advice’s Halloween memoranda, one employer’s handbook specifically provided for possible changes to an employee’s at-will employment status if made in writing and signed by the company president, and the other employer’s handbook merely said that no one in management had authority to make changes to the at-will policy. Specifically, the two at-will policies validated by the Division of Advice provided:

At-Will Employment

The relationship between you and Mimi’s Café is referred to as “employment at will.” This means that your employment can be terminated at any time for any reason, with or without cause, with or without notice, by you or the Company. No representative of the Company has authority to enter into any agreement contrary to the foregoing "employment at will" relationship. Nothing contained in this handbook creates an express or implied contract of employment.

Statement of At-Will Employment Status

Employment with Rocha Transportation is employment at-will. Employment at-will may be terminated with or without cause and with or without notice at any time by the employee or the Company. Nothing in this Handbook or in any document or statement shall limit the right to terminate employment at-will. No manager, supervisor, or employee of Rocha Transportation has any authority to enter into an agreement for employment for any specified period of time or to make an agreement for employment other than at-will. Only the president of the Company has the authority to make any such agreement and then only in writing.

The Rocha Transportation handbook also contained an "Acknowledgment of Receipt" that employees were required to sign, acknowledging that "nothing in the employee handbook creates or is intended to create a promise, contract, or representation of continued employment ...” The Division of Advice noted this was important in showing that the employer was trying to protect against contract claims, as opposed to trying to restrict employees’ rights under the Act.

The Division of Advice’s memoranda provide a welcome respite from an otherwise troubling (for employers) spate of Board decisions affecting both non-union and unionized employers on topics such as social media, off-duty access, and confidentiality policies. Although the Division of Advice’s memoranda are technically not binding, the Board’s Acting General Counsel has instructed all NLRB Regional Offices to consult with the Division of Advice before issuing any complaint challenging an employer’s at-will policy. And employers now have some helpful guidance from these memoranda concerning how to word at-will policies.

 

NLRB Finds Employee Arbitration Agreement Waiving Class Claims Violates Federal Labor Law

In DR Horton, a decision issued on January 3 and applicable to most private sector employers, whether unionized or not, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) held that federal labor law prevents employers from requiring their employees, as a condition of employment, to agree to broad waivers that would deny their right to pursue employment-related class actions both in court and in arbitration, leaving them no forum for pursuing class or collective claims.  As a result, an important tool for managing the risk of employment-related litigation has been taken away (for now). 

The facts of the case are straightforward.  DR Horton, like many employers, required its employees to sign an arbitration agreement as a condition of employment.  The agreement required employees to arbitrate all claims arising out of their employment, and precluded arbitrators from issuing class or group relief.  As a result, employees were prevented from bringing class or collective actions in any forum.  Relying on this agreement, DR Horton refused to arbitrate a class action alleging that it had misclassified certain employees as exempt from the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

 

Not so fast, according to the NLRB.  Tracing federal labor law back to its origins, the NLRB found that the filing of a class action “to redress workplace wrongs or improve working conditions” is activity at “the core” of what Congress intended to protect when it enacted the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.  This intent, the NLRB reasoned, is reflected in Section 7 of the Act, which gives employees the right to engage in “concerted activities” for the purposes of “mutual aid or protection.”  Relying on Section 7, the NLRB found that Employers cannot compel their employees, as a condition of employment, to entirely waive the right to bring class or collective actions.

 

The NLRB’s ruling in DR Horton clashes with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which held that arbitration clauses that waive the right to bring class claims entirely (in the commercial contract context) may be lawful and enforceable.  But unless and until the courts intervene to resolve this tension, requiring your employees to completely waive the right to bring employment-related class or collective actions - a common feature of arbitration agreements - is probably no longer permissible under federal labor law.

 

If You're Interested In Learning More, Sign Up For Our Webinar

Stoel Rives is hosting a webinar on January 11, 2012, to address employee arbitration agreements generally and the DR Horton decision in particular.  Click here if you're interested in learning more or attending.