By Ashley Laken
Seyfarth Synopsis: The NLRB’s Division of Advice recently released an Advice Memorandum finding that a security company’s work rules were unlawfully overbroad, but that the company did not violate the National Labor Relations Act by discharging one of its employees for posting an insidious Facebook video or by filing a defamation lawsuit against two former employees.
Earlier this month, the NLRB’s Division of Advice publicly released an Advice Memorandum that it had issued to Region 27 of the NLRB in August 2018 (the NLRB’s policy is to release Advice Memos at its discretion only after the disputes they concern end), in which the Division of Advice opined on the legality of a security company’s workplace policies, the discharge of an employee for posting a Facebook video, and the company’s filing of a defamation lawsuit against that employee and another former employee. In Colorado Professional Security Services, LLC (Case 27-CA-203915, et al.), the NLRB’s Division of Advice found the policies at issue were unlawful, but did not find the employee’s firing or the defamation lawsuit were unlawful.
The company maintained the following policy: “Employees must refrain from engaging in conduct that could adversely affect the Company’s business or reputation. Such conduct includes, but is not limited to…publicly criticizing the Company, its management or its employees.”
In 2016, Charging Party 1, a former employee, filed federal and state court wage-and-hour lawsuits against the company; the lawsuits were joined by other former and current employees, including Charging Party 2, who was then a current employee. In May 2017, Charging Party 1 caused to be posted on Facebook two photos that appeared to show a company security guard sleeping on the job, including the captions, “Wow look at Colorado Professional security services hard at work.”
On several occasions in 2017, the company disciplined Charging Party 2 for being unkempt and not wearing the proper uniform. The disciplinary letters issued to Charging Party 2 included language prohibiting discussion of the discipline with coworkers or clients. After one such instance of discipline, Charging Party 2 posted a 23-minute live video on Facebook during work hours and while in uniform talking about the discipline for wearing improper shoes and the confidentiality provision in the disciplinary notice, referencing the wage-and-hour lawsuits, making crude and disparaging jokes and comments about a supervisor, and stating that by asking Charging Party 2 to sign something interfering with free speech, the conduct of the company’s officials was “against the United States Constitution and you need to be shot on sight.”
Soon after, the company discharged Charging Party 2, stating that Charging Party 2 was being discharged for insubordination, regularly being unkempt and not in the proper uniform, conflict of interest, and insidious remarks regarding the company name, business, and security officers while on duty and in uniform. The company also filed a state court lawsuit against Charging Party 1 and Charging Party 2, alleging that their Facebook posts constituted defamation and interference with business relations. Thereafter, Charging Party 1 and Charging Party 2 filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB.
The Division of Advice’s Findings
The Division of Advice concluded that the policy prohibiting employees from criticizing the company and the standard disciplinary letter language prohibiting employees from discussing their discipline with coworkers or clients violated the National Labor Relations Act. The Division of Advice found that under the NLRB’s Boeing decision, these were Category 2 rules that violated the Act because the impact on employees’ right under the NLRA to engage in protected concerted activity outweighed the company’s business justification. The Division of Advice found that by prohibiting any public criticism of the company or its management, the company was expressly interfering with any appeals by employees to the public in labor disputes, and the company did not have a legitimate business justification for that kind of total ban. Regarding the disciplinary letter language, the Division of Advice concluded that by prohibiting employees from discussing their discipline with coworkers and clients, the company was expressly interfering with the right of employees to communicate with each other or third parties on a central term of employment, without any legitimate business justification for doing so.
However, the Division of Advice found that the discharge of Charging Party 2 did not violate the Act. The Division of Advice found that although Charging Party 2 was discharged, at least in part, for violating the unlawfully overbroad rules, the discharge was not unlawful because the Facebook video did not constitute protected concerted activity and it was so egregious that other employees would not connect Charging Party 2’s discharge to the overbroad aspect of the rules. The Division of Advice found that although Charging Party 2 referred to subjects in the video that could have been relevant to employees’ mutual aid or protection, the comments were entirely individual complaints and there was no indication that Charging Party 2 was speaking for other employees or seeking to act in concert with others. The Division of Advice also noted that Charging Party 2’s crude and disparaging jokes and comments about the supervisor were so egregious that Charging Party 2’s coworkers would not connect the discharge to the overbroad aspect of the rules, thus mitigating any chilling effect on potential NLRA-protected activity by employees.
The Division of Advice also found that the employer’s defamation lawsuit against the Charging Parties did not violate the NLRA. The Division of Advice noted that the Supreme Court has held that the NLRB can enjoin as an unfair labor practice the filing and prosecution of a lawsuit only when the lawsuit lacks a reasonable basis in law or fact and was commenced with a retaliatory motive. Advice found that although the company’s lawsuit was baseless (Advice noted that the company had failed to plead in the lawsuit that the allegedly defamatory statements were made with malice or to plead any specific damages suffered by the company), the lawsuit was not unlawful because it was not directed at any protected concerted activity and had not been otherwise shown to retaliate against the Charging Parties’ protected conduct. In reaching this conclusion, Advice noted that the lawsuit came soon after the Charging Parties’ Facebook posts and almost one year after the wage-and-hour lawsuits were filed.
Takeaways for Employers
The Advice Memo drives home that point that employers would be well-advised to review their policies, handbooks, and standard disciplinary notice language to ensure that they do not contain any language that runs afoul of the National Labor Relations Act. The Advice Memo is also a reminder for employers that whether an employee’s actions constitute protected concerted activity is a highly fact-specific inquiry and is often a close question. The Memo also provides guidance on the circumstances under which a lawsuit filed against a current or former employee might be found to be an unfair labor practice charge. Employers with questions about any of these issues should contact labor counsel.