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.
The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) continues to closely scrutinize employers’ social media policies and practices. As employers struggle to craft policies that promote productivity while at the same time protect employees’ rights, both unionized and non-unionized employers need to be aware of recent NLRB decisions and their impact on employer policies:
Social-Media Based Termination Can Be Acceptable, But Rule Requiring “Courtesy” Is Not
On September 28, 2012, a three-member panel of the NLRB affirmed the termination of a car salesman who posted photographs on Facebook ridiculing his employer, but it rejected the employer’s rule requiring courteous behavior. (Karl Knauz Motors Inc., 358 N.L.R.B. No. 164, Sept. 28, 2012 [released Oct. 1, 2012]). Knauz marked the first time a panel of the NLRB decided a case involving social media; previously, all NLRB guidance in this area came from ALJ decisions or the Board’s General Counsel Memoranda. In Knauz, a sales employee had complained on his Facebook page about his employer, a BMW car dealership, posting photos and criticizing bad food the dealer offered at a sales event; he had also discussed those concerns with other coworkers. He also posted critical comments and photos about an accident during a test drive at the dealership. The employer terminated the employee for his Facebook postings and for violating the employer’s courtesy policy. That policy stated that “[e]veryone is expected to be courteous, polite and friendly to our customers, vendors and suppliers, as well as to their fellow employees,” and that “[n]o one should be disrespectful or use profanity or any other language which injures the image or reputation of the Dealership.”
The NLRB ultimately declined to decide whether the employee’s complaints about the food were protected activity under the NLRA. The ALJ below had held the food complaints were protected because the employee and his coworkers conceivably were concerned that the low-quality food offered at the sales event would deter customers from coming, thus leading to lower sales commissions for the employees. Instead, the NLRB upheld the employee’s termination, agreeing with the ALJ that the employee’s Facebook postings relating to the on-site accident were not related to any employees’ terms or conditions of employment.
Most interestingly, the NLRB decided, in a 2-1 split decision, that the employer’s rule on courtesy violated the NLRA because it could reasonably be construed by employees as prohibiting protected concerted activities, “such as employees’ protected statements—whether to coworkers, supervisors, managers, or third parties who deal with the Respondent— that object to their working conditions and seek the support of others in improving them.”
Employer Cannot Prohibit Use of Social Media During “Company Time”
On September 20, 2012, an ALJ found that an employer’s policy prohibiting the use of social media on “Company time” violated the NLRA. (EchoStar Techs. LLC, NLRB ALJ, No. 27-CA-066726, Sept. 20, 2012). This decision is consistent with recent NLRB General Counsel Memoranda (here and here), which tend to distinguish between “company time” and “work time.” Indeed, the General Counsel has explicitly approved a social media policy that directs employees to “[r]efrain from using social media while on work time or on equipment we provide.” A restriction as broad as prohibiting social media use during “company time” would encompass nonworking time, such as paid breaks, which could interfere with employees’ ability to exercise their rights to concerted activity under the NLRA.
The employer argued that the social-media prohibition was a common-sense rule designed to prevent employees from engaging in personal activities on the job—a problem that has become pervasive in the workplace, substantially affecting productivity. The employer also argued that the “Company time” prohibition was reasonable in context because it was included in a policy restricting the use of company equipment, which the employer argued it could restrict whether during working time or nonworking time. Without significant discussion, the ALJ simply ruled that the prohibition was unlawful and must be removed from the employee handbook.
What to Take Away
The NLRB law on social media policies is continuing to evolve in favor of employees. It is a delicate line to balance between (1) appropriate limitations on the use of social media, and (2) protecting employees’ rights of concerted activity under the NLRA to confer for their mutual benefit regarding the terms and conditions of employment. It seems clear, however, that broad-based bans on the use of social media during work-time, and efforts to control the nature of employees’ communications on social media as they relate to working conditions, will not be viewed favorably by the NLRB.
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.
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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.
In order to allow more time for legal challenges to its notice-posting rule to be resolved, the National Labor Relations Board has again postponed the rule's effective date, this time to April 30, 2012. Stay tuned.
For additional information regarding the NLRB's new rule and posting requirement, including links to the new rule and the poster employers must post, see our prior post on this topic by following this link.