Wednesday, May 3, 2017

2nd Circuit Holds Employee's Facebook Outburst Protected Under National Labor Relations Act

Nearly two years ago today, I blogged about the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") finding that an employer, Pier Sixty, had been found to have violated the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") after it fired an employee, Hernan Perez, who went on Facebook and wrote, about his supervisor, Robert "Bob" McSweeney:

Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER FUCKER don't know 
how to talk to people !!!!!!  Fuck his mother and his entire
fucking family!!!!  What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the
UNION!!!!!!!

As you fully read the words of Perez's post, you can probably start to see why the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the NLRB's decision (hint: "Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!).  However, in upholding the NLRB's decision, the facts were crucial and the same outcome may not be reached in any and every employee rant and outburst on Facebook or other social media platforms.

Facts

Two days before the employees were to vote on the union election, Perez was working as a server at one of Pier Sixty's venues.  Perez's supervisor, Bob, apparently was supervising him with "harsh tones" which Perez did not like and 45 minutes after being spoking to in this harsh tone, during an authorized break from work, Perez wrote the above Facebook post.  Perez knew that his Facebook "friends" included ten (10) coworkers, who would be able to see the post; the post was also publicly accessible, although he may not have known this at the time.  Perez took the post down three days later but Pier Sixty was already aware of the post and fired him after an investigation.

Perez filed a charge with the NLRB alleging he had been terminated in retaliation for "protected concerted activities."  An ALJ later issued a decision finding that Pier Sixty had violated Sections 8(a)(1) and 8(a)(3) of the NLRA by the discharging Perez in retaliation for protected activity.  A 3-member panel of the NLRB affirmed this decision, the NLRB filed an application for enforcement, and Pier Sixty filed a cross-petition for review, which was the issue before the 2nd Circuit.

Opinion and Decision

The issue ultimately before the 2nd Circuit was whether Perez's Facebook post was so "opprobrious" as to lose the protection that the NLRA affords union-related speech.  Many may think the tone of Perez's Facebook post would be so "opprobrious" but the 2nd Circuit, while disagreeing, did state that this case sits "at the outer-bounds of protected, union-related comments, and any test for evaluating 'opprobrium conduct' must be sufficiently sensitive to employers' legitimate disciplinary interests..."  

The right to engage in union-related activity is protected by Sections 8(a)(1) and 8(a)(3) of the NLRA, which prohibit an employer from discharging employees for participating in protected, union-related activity under Section 7.  But even an employee engaged in ostensibly protected activity may act "in such an abusive manner that he loses the protection" of the NLRA.

The "abusive" behavior in this case is obviously Perez's Facebook post.  Traditionally, the starting point for evaluating whether an employee's "uttering of ... obscenities" in the workplace qualifies for protection under the NLRA has been the four-factor test established by the NLRB in Atlantic Steel ((1) the place of the discussion; (2) the subject matter of the discussion; (3) the nature of the employee's outburst; and (4) whether the outburst was, in any way, provoked by an employer's unfair labor practice).  The Court noted that this test has come under scrutiny as recently in NLRB v. Starbucks where the 2nd Circuit concluded that the Atlantic Steel test gave insufficient weight to employers' interests in preventing employees' outbursts "in a public place in the presence of customers" and the 2nd Circuit suggested more balanced standards for evaluating "opprobrious" conduct in this context.  At the same time, the General Counsel's Office began developing new guidance for evaluating an employee's use of social media that went in a more employee-friendly direction and that limited the ability of employers to issue rules regarding use of social media.  In light of this new guidance, the Board has utilized the nine-factor "totality of the circumstances" test in recent social media cases.

Pier Sixty did not contest the ALJ's use of the nine-factor test, even though it appears that if they did, the 2nd Circuit would have potentially ruled differently.  Instead, Pier Sixty argued that the Board's decision--that Perez's comments were not so egregious as to exceed the Act's protection--is not supported by "substantial evidence" in the record.  

In rejecting this argument, the 2nd Circuit noted that, even though Perez's Facebook post was "dominated by vulgar attacks on McSweeney and his family," the "subject matter" included workplace concerns which meant the Board could reasonably conclude that Perez's outburst was not an "idiosyncratic reaction to a manager's request but part of the tense debate over managerial mistreatment in the period before the union election.

Second, the Court noted how Pier Sixty had a culture of not disciplining many employees for the type of language Perez used, let alone terminating any for such language and conduct.  

Third, the Court noted the location of the language:  on Facebook.  This is not the same as an employee outbursting in ear shot or in front of customers.  The Facebook post did not disrupt the event Perez was working nor was it evident any attendees saw the post, even though Perez's page was initially publicly accessible, he did take the post down three days later.

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