In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis that employers may lawfully require employees to sign arbitration agreements that include a waiver of the right to participate in an employee class action lawsuit or arbitration. Below, we discuss the significance of this decision and highlight issues that employers may wish to consider in the wake of it.

Epic Systems—a Pivotal Win for Employers

The NLRB planted the seed for Epic Systems in 2012, when it first took the position that Section 7 of the National Labor relations Act (“NLRA”)—which affords employees the right to self-organize, bargain collectively, and “engage in other concerted activities”—precludes enforcement of employee class action waivers. The federal Circuit Courts of Appeal split on the NLRB’s position in the ensuing years. Deepening the divide, the DOJ under the current administration broke with the NLRB.

In Epic Systems the Supreme Court rejected the notion that class actions are “concerted activities” inviolable under Section 7 of the NLRA, opining that the term is not a broad catchall. The Court observed that, while the NLRA includes many specific procedural rules, rules relating to class or collective actions are not among them. Absent clear Congressional intent, the Court reasoned that the NLRA could not “displace” the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) and its edict promoting the enforceability of arbitration agreements.

Further, even if the employees could show that “the NLRA actually renders class and collective action waivers illegal[,]” the Court stated that the employees still could not properly invoke the FAA’s “saving” clause, which permits annulment of arbitration agreements “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” The Court characterized this as an “‘equal-treatment’ rule for arbitration contracts”—i.e., an arbitration contract (including a class action waiver) will be nullified only if it suffers from an elemental flaw in its formation, such as fraud.

In sum, Epic Systems represents a continuation of the Supreme Court’s recent trend of favoring arbitration agreements.

What Employers Should Consider Next

Though Epic Systems marks a resonant victory for employers, issues around the scope and effectiveness of class action waivers remain. Financial services employers may wish to consider:

Can our firm implement a class action waiver?

In implementing waivers, the financial services sector must be mindful of FINRA’s regulatory authority. Though any doubt about the lawfulness of consumer class action waivers was erased in 2011, FINRA has since said that a member firm’s use of waivers in customer contracts violates FINRA’s rules “intended to preserve investor access to . . . judicial class actions[.]”

FINRA has not, however, announced a parallel prohibition on waivers in employment agreements. Indeed, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 held that FINRA’s arbitral rules—though they preclude arbitration of claims subject to class actions and certain types of collective actions—do not bar employers from enforcing employee waivers.

Should our firm implement a class action waiver?

Although Epic Systems confirms that employers may require employees to waive the right to participate in a class actions, employers still must consider the practical implications. The environment around arbitration agreements and class action waivers is politically-charged, and firms implementing a class action waiver may receive backlash from employees and advocacy groups. Accordingly, any program rollout should be given due consideration.

What is the appropriate vehicle for the waiver?

A class action waiver may be included in an employment policy made available to—and acknowledged indirectly by—employees, or it could be included in a specific agreement that itself requires an employee’s signature.   The former may be an easier rollout, but the latter could be less susceptible to a claim that the employee(s) never agreed to the waiver.

Employers also should note that, although Epic Systems addressed class action waivers in the context of arbitration agreements, a class action waiver could also appear in an agreement that permits the parties to choose litigation instead of arbitration, if that is the preference.

To whom will the waiver apply?

Employers should consider whether a waiver will apply to all or some employees. Conditioning a new hire’s employment on a waiver could be fairly straightforward, but rolling out a new requirement to current employees might be more difficult from a practical and legal perspective. As noted in Epic Systems, arbitration agreements (and concomitant waivers) may be nullified under the FAA on fundamental grounds—including, potentially, a lack of “consideration” given in exchange for the waiver. Hence, employers might consider presenting existing employees with waivers in connection with a raise, bonus, promotion, etc.

What form should the waiver take?

Class action waivers should be as simple and concise as possible. Ambiguity may open the door to an adverse interpretation by a court or arbitral panel skeptical of waivers as a general matter. Epic Systems does not offer much guidance in this regard, but various trial and appellate court opinions do.

Might any class or collection actions be outside the scope of even a well-drafted a waiver?

Lastly, even a well-crafted class action waiver may not fully insulate employers. In this vein, the financial services sector—with its nucleus in New York—should keep an eye on a bill introduced in the New York State legislature, the “Empowering People in Rights Enforcement (EMPIRE) Worker Protection Act” (“EWPA”). It would amend New York’s Labor Law such that complainant employee(s) could step into NYSDOL’s shoes and pursue civil penalties “on behalf of . . . other current or former employees” and “allege multiple violations that have affected different employees.” If passed, employees could attempt to use the EWPA as an end-run around class action waivers. Employees may contend that, as NYSDOL itself is not bound by a contractual waiver, employee(s) cloaked with NYSDOL’s authority likewise would be unhindered by that waiver. Employees have made essentially that argument, with success thus far, in relation to California’s Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”), after which the EWPA is modeled.

We published an article with Thomson Reuters Practical Law summarizing key employment issues for financial services employers, highlighting those rules applicable to registered representatives regulated by Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). With Thomson Reuters Practical Law’s permission, we have attached it here.

Equal pay for equal work has been required for many years, but, as of late, this rather static requirement has become the focal point of regulators, state and local governments, and activists. In order to achieve equality in compensation, the efforts are becoming increasingly creative with new pushes for transparency, privacy, and/or disclosures. Financial services firms are often the target and should not only be aware of these innovative measures and requirements but also consider what proactive actions to put in place.

Eliminating Pay Secrecy

The National Labor Relations Board made it clear years ago that “employees” (as defined under the National Labor Relations Act) could not be restricted from discussing the terms and conditions, including compensation, of their employment, based on their rights to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Yet, many employers continue to have policies or agreements, or informal rules, which restrict employees from doing so. Recently, there has been a concentrated effort to prevent employers from designating employee compensation as “confidential” and/or restricting discussion of it. For example, in connection with the former administration’s determination to eradicate equal pay impediments in the workplace, in a 2014 executive order, then-President Barack Obama prohibited federal contractors from retaliating against employees who talk about their salaries or other compensation information.

A number of states and localities that have been passing their own equal pay laws have been addressing pay secrecy as well. Such states include the following:

  • California: The California Fair Pay Act, which became effective as of January 1, 2016, takes pay secrecy head on. It not only restricts policies that prevent employees from discussing their own compensation but also prevents them from prohibiting an employee from disclosing the employee’s own wages, discussing the wages of others, inquiring about another employee’s wages, or aiding or encouraging any other employee to exercise his or her rights under the law.
  • Connecticut: Connecticut’s Act Concerning Pay Equity and Fairness (“Connecticut Act”) prohibits an employer from (i) barring employees from disclosing or discussing the amount of his or her wages or the wages of another employee of such employer that have been disclosed voluntarily by such other employee, (ii) inquiring about the wages of another employee of such employer, or (iii) requiring employees to sign documents waiving their rights under the Connecticut Act or taking actions against employees. The Connecticut Act does note, however, that it will not be construed to require any employer or employee to disclose the amount of wages paid to any employee.
  • New York: New York State recently enacted the Achieve Pay Equity Act (“APEA”), which modified the existing equal pay law in a number of respects. One particular change bars an employer from prohibiting an employee from “inquiring about, discussing, or disclosing” the employee’s wages or the wages of another employee. However, the APEA specifically provides for limitations. The APEA states that employers may maintain, in a written policy, reasonable workplace and workday limitations on the time, place, and manner for inquiries about, discussion of, or the disclosure of wages. Also, the APEA provides that no employee is required to discuss his or her wages with another employee, and employees who have access to other employees’ wage information as a result of their job duties (e.g., human resources staff) may be limited in the disclosure of such information by their employer.

Prior Compensation: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Another focus of equal pay activists has been on employers’ asking employees for their current pay information to be used in determining their pay rates. Opponents to this practice claim that it perpetuates wage gaps for women that may “follow” women from job to job. Massachusetts is the first state to take the issue head on and prohibit employers from seeking information about applicants’ compensation history in the hiring process. The Massachusetts equal pay law, which becomes effective in 2018, bars employers from asking about an applicant’s salary history on an application or during interviews for employment. Pursuant to the law, after an offer of employment with compensation terms has been negotiated and made, a prospective employer may seek or confirm a prospective employee’s wage or salary history.

Activist Investors Turn Their Sights to Wall Street

In an effort to push for pay equality, activist investors have begun to exert pressure on large financial institutions to disclose compensation information. Such investors have already filed proposals with a number of large financial services institutions, such as Citigroup, Bank of America Corp., and Wells Fargo & Co. The investors are demanding that these institutions publish statistics about the race and gender of employees, as well as compensation information. Last year, activist investors took similar initiatives with respect to large technology firms, the majority of which complied with making public pay gap information and taking steps to close any gaps.

What Employers Should Do Now

In light of this increased focus on pay information, policies, and procedures, employers should do the following:

  • Undertake pay audits to determine any disparities and the genesis of such disparities. Pay audits should be conducted with legal counsel to maintain the information in a privileged manner as much as possible.
  • Thoroughly review their pay-setting policies and procedures. If you are a Massachusetts employer, take specific steps to ensure that pay information is not improperly requested through the hiring process. While most states and localities do not prohibit an employer from asking employees for their pay histories, relying solely on such information for setting starting pay may lead to pay inequities.
  • Determine appropriate compensation ranges based on factors other than pay history—such as market conditions, job requirements, experience, and skills, among other things.
  • When providing raises or determining bonuses, consider and document an employer’s rationale for compensation decisions in order to defend against any claims of inequity based on gender or another improper reason.
  • Consider training managers not to restrict (or appear to restrict) employees from discussing wages in compliance with applicable local laws. Managers may be unfamiliar with the new focus on prohibiting pay secrecy and could be improperly handling such matters.
  • Review their policies and agreements as they relate to sharing pay information to make sure that they are compliant with applicable laws, contain non-retaliation provisions, and direct employees to avenues for complaints.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter Five Employment Issues Under the New Administration That Financial Services Employers Should Monitor.”

Once again seemingly appropriate work rules have been under attack by the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”). In a recent decision (Component Bar Products, Inc. and James R. Stout, Case 14-CA-145064), two members of a three-member NLRB panel upheld an August 7, 2015 decision by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) finding that an employer violated the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or the “Act”) by maintaining overly broad handbook rules and terminating an employee who was engaged in “protected, concerted activity” when he called another employee and warned him that his job was in jeopardy.  Member Miscimarra concurred in part and dissented in part, arguing that the Board should overrule applicable precedent interpreting the Act.

Factual background

The respondent company is engaged in the manufacture and sale of precision machined products for the automotive and other industries from a facility in Missouri. Respondent maintained a personal conduct and disciplinary action policy in its associate handbook that prohibits “insubordination or other disrespectful conduct,” “unauthorized disclosure of business ‘secrets’ or confidential information,” and “boisterous or disruptive activity in the workplace.”  On January 20, 2015, a quality technician called his co-worker from his cell phone during business hours after his Plant Manager made a remark suggesting that the co-worker may not have a job with the company anymore.  The Plant Manager found out about the technician’s phone call when the co-worker called the Respondent to complain that it was management’s job, not an employee’s job, to tell him that he was being fired.  Respondent decided to terminate the technician for “misconduct” for involving himself in another employee’s personal affairs and otherwise engaging in conduct in violation of the handbook.

The ALJ’s Decision

The ALJ first considered whether the Respondent’s maintenance of rules prohibiting “insubordination and other disrespectful conduct” and “boisterous or disruptive activity in the workplace” violates Section 8(a)(1) of the Act because employees reasonably could construe those bans to include protected Section 7 activity. Citing NLRB precedent (Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia, 343 NLRB 646 (2004)), the ALJ noted that an employer violates Section 8(a)(1) when it maintains a work rule that employees could “reasonably construe” to block or “chill” them from exercising their Section 7 rights.  In this case, the ALJ determined that both rules in the handbook violate Section 8(a)(1) because of their likelihood to chill Section 7 activity.

The ALJ next considered whether the discharge of the technician was proper or whether it violated Section 7 of the Act, which protects employee conduct that is both “concerted” and engaged in “for mutual aid and protection.” Because the Board repeatedly has held that an employee’s warning to another employee that the latter’s job is at risk constitutes protected, concerted activity, the ALJ found that the technician’s conversation with the co-worker constituted protected, concerted activity.  Accordingly, the ALJ found that the technician’s discharge violated Section 8(a)(1) because he was terminated for engaging in such conduct.

Among other things, the ALJ ordered the Respondent to offer the technician full reinstatement to his former position or, if that position no longer exists, to a substantially equivalent position, without prejudice to his seniority or any other rights or privileges previously enjoyed, and to make him whole for any loss of earnings and other benefits suffered as a result of the discrimination against him. The ALJ also said that the employer should compensate him for adverse tax consequences, if any, of receiving a lump-sum backpay award and to file a report with the Social Security Administration allocating the backpay award to appropriate calendar quarters.

The Panel’s Decision

The Board majority agreed with the ALJ’s application of Lutheran Village to find that the Respondent violated Section 8(a)(1) by maintaining overly broad handbook rules and that the technician engaged in protected concerted activity when he called another employee to warn the employee that his job was in jeopardy and the Respondent violated Section 8(a)(1) by discharging the technician for that activity.  The majority said, “We agree with the judge’s application of Lutheran Heritage … to find that the respondent violated Section 8(a)(1) by maintaining overly broad handbook rules. . . . We also agree with the judge that [the technician] engaged in protected concerted activity.” The panel also agreed with the ALJ that the technician should be awarded backpay in the form of a lump sum, but disagreed with the ALJ as to how the Respondent must report and allocate that payment.

Member Miscimarra’s Concurring and Dissenting Opinion

Member Miscimarra concurred with the majority’s finding that the technician engaged in protected concerted activity when he telephoned his coworker to warn him that his job was in jeopardy, and he agreed that the Respondent violated Section 8(a)(1) of the Act when it discharged the technician for doing so. However, regarding the majority’s finding that the Respondent violated Section 8(a)(1) by maintaining the two work rules, Miscimarra disagreed with those violation findings, and he also disagreed with the standard that the ALJ and the majority applied in reaching those findings:  he said, “Unlike my colleagues and the judge, I believe the Board should not apply the ‘reasonably construe’ standard [from Lutheran Village].”

Miscimarra said that he believes the Lutheran Heritage ‘reasonably construe’ standard should be overruled by the Board or repudiated by the courts.

Instead, Member Miscimarra endorsed the standard he articulated in the NLRB’s decision William Beaumont Hospital, 363 NLRB No. 162, slip op. at 7–24 (2016) (Member Miscimarra, concurring in part and dissenting in part).  In William Beaumont, he articulated his view that the Board is required to evaluate an employer’s workplace rules, policies and handbook provisions by striking a “proper balance” that takes into account (i) the legitimate justifications associated with the disputed rules and (ii) any potential adverse impact on NLRA protected activity, and a “facially neutral” policy, rule or handbook provision (defined as a rule that does not expressly restrict Section 7 activity, was not adopted in response to NLRA-protected activity, and has not been applied to restrict NLRA-protected activity) should be declared unlawful only if the legitimate justifications an employer may have for maintaining the rule are outweighed by its potential adverse impact on Section 7 activity.  Applying that standard, Member Miscimarra said that the Board should find that the two rules at issue are lawful.

Conclusion

Notwithstanding Member Miscimara’s dissenting opinion, Lutheran Village remains viable NLRB precedent, as evidenced by the majority’s application of that decision.  Accordingly, this case is yet another example of the NLRB’s broad view of what constitutes “concerted protected activity,” “work rules” and unlawful activity under the Act. Because what constitutes an overbroad work rule is not always clear-cut, any employer subject to the Act (one whose company affects commerce) should carefully review its various agreements, policies and handbooks to ensure that they do not contain rules that would not be reasonably construed to chill union-related activities. While there are swirling questions on how aggressive the future NLRB will be under a new administration, in the meantime, taking a proactive approach of revising potentially problematic work rules will put employers in the best possible position if they find themselves facing scrutiny from the NLRB.

Lauri F. RasnickWe previously reported that on June 9, 2015, six federal agencies (“Agencies”) subject to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (“Act”) issued much-anticipated joint final standards (“Final Standards”) in accordance with Section 342 of the Act for assessing the diversity policies and practices of the entities that they regulate (“Covered Entities”). See our earlier client advisory for an overview of the Final Standards which are divided into five general categories: (i) organizational commitment to diversity and inclusion, (ii) workforce profile and employment practices, (iii) procurement and business practices (or supplier diversity), (iv) practices to promote transparency of organizational diversity and inclusion, and (v) entities’ self-assessment.

The Final Standards were published in the Federal Register and became effective on June 10, 2015.  It has now been over a year since the issuance and publication of the joint final standards with little further guidance provided to employers.

Just last month, however, a Frequently Asked Questions (“FAQs”) on the Final Standards was issued by the Board of Governors Reserve System, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.  In the FAQs, the agencies set forth several key points:

  • Assessments of regulated entities should be self-assessments.
  • It is recommended that self-assessments cover the standards set forth in the Final Standards but can include additional issues as well.
  • Self-assessments should be conducted on an annual basis.
  • Information concerning a regulated entity’s self-assessment should be voluntarily provided to the Director of the Office of Women and Minority Inclusion of the entity’s primary federal regulator within 90 days of the close of the calendar year.
  • Information concerning a regulated entity’s diversity and inclusion efforts should be published on its website or otherwise communicated.
  • In terms of defining “diversity”, there is no preclusion in an entity defining it more broadly than including women and minorities.
  • Regulated entities’ self-assessments of their diversity policies and practices, and the provision of such assessments to their respective regulators, are voluntary.

The agencies further clarify that an entity’s diversity policies and practices will not be assessed by its primary federal regulator and examinations by regulators will not consider compliance with the Final Standards. Rather, the agencies are relying on the regulated entities to engage in self-assessment.  In addition, the agencies state that they will be using the information provided through self-assessments to monitor progress and trends, identify best practices and possibly highlight certain practices or successes anonymously.

While compliance with the Final Standards is not mandatory, many firms are interested in improving their diversity and inclusion efforts and can look to the Final Standards for ways to engage in self-analysis and development. In this vein, employers should consider in what ways they are currently implementing actions envisioned by the Final Standards and what other actions may be taken.  Even this exercise can be beneficial.  Many employers that go through this analysis identify shortcomings and develop goals and plans for improvement, all of which can go a long way to ultimately increasing diversity.

Jonathan L. ShapiroLauri F. RasnickIn a recent decision, a National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) ruled that Quicken Loans’s (the “Company”) Detroit, Michigan branch (along with five related entities) violated the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) by using and disseminating an employee manual in its non-union workplace that the ALJ concluded interfered with employees’ rights under the NLRA.  This was yet another case in which the NLRB took aim against Quicken Loans for adopting work rules and/or policies that an ALJ found would “chill” non-unionized employees in the exercise of their rights under the NLRA.  As we previously discussed in another blog post, in March 2016, the NLRB found that the Company’s branch in Scottsdale, Arizona violated the NLRA by implementing unlawful work rules after one of its bankers used profanity and complained about a client in an office restroom.

The most recent case revolved around a 238-page employee manual referred to as the “Big Book.”  In Quicken Loans Inc. et al. and Hugh MacEachern, Case Number 07-CA-145794, an ALJ found a number of provisions in the Big Book unlawfully interfered with employees’ rights to engage in concerted activities concerning their terms and conditions of employment.  Although Quicken Loans has vowed to appeal the April decision to the Board in Washington for setting a “dangerous precedent,” the decision in reality follows a long line of NLRB precedents that have taken a buzz-saw to employment policies and agreements where it believes they may interfere with employees’ protected Section 7 activity (i.e., activity that implicates employees’ right to form, join or assist labor organizations or collectively bargain or act for their mutual aid and protection).  In this latest decision, the ALJ reviewed a number of the Big Book’s rules, ultimately finding many, but not all, to be unlawful on account of being “overbroad,” which the ALJ explained means is a rule that is broader than necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate interest and that “employees would reasonably interpret . . . to encompass protected activities” under the NLRA.  We list and discuss some of these rules below to shed light on what the NLRB considers to be unlawful interference with employees’ rights, as opposed to a lawful work rule.

Found to be Unlawful Rules:

  • “This book contains confidential information that must not be disclosed outside the Company or used for purposes other than for the Company’s legitimate business purposes. This book or any of its contents may not be reproduced or disseminated to anyone not employed by the Company.” The ALJ concluded this rule was overbroad and would be seen by employees as prohibiting actions protected by the NLRA because there was no way for an employee to know what portions of the Big Book were confidential. Moreover, a blanket prohibition on dissemination of “any of [the Big Book’s] contents” was overbroad because the Big Book discussed matters relating to the terms and conditions of employment.
  • “Think before you Tweet. Or post, comment or pin. What you share can live forever. If it doesn’t belong on the front page of the New York Times, don’t put it online.” The ALJ found this to be a violation of the NLRA because an employee considering this rule would reasonably feel chilled from expressing negative, but protected, information about the Company, which is protected by the NLRA.
  • “The Company recognizes that team members may desire to display mementos pertaining to family or other personal items. However, nothing can be displayed that is, or could be deemed to be, harmful or offensive to a reasonable person and his or her system of beliefs.” The ALJ concluded this rule was unlawful because a reasonable employee would “think twice” in the face of this rule before displaying pro-union mementos and thus would see it as a prohibition on union related activity.
  • “The Company’s buildings, offices, common areas . . . are to be used only for conducting Company business and transactions, and for no other purpose.” The ALJ found this rule was unlawful because an employee would reasonably understand it to bar solicitation and other protected activity at times and in places where such activities are protected by the NLRA.
  •  “You shall not photograph or record through any means the Company’s operations, systems, presentations, communications, voicemails, or meetings.” The ALJ found that this policy was unlawful because employees would likely understand this to prohibit protected activity, such as the recording of a meeting held to discuss wages and other terms and conditions of employment.
  •  “[You may not use] Company Resources to engage in inappropriate acts that exhibit conduct that is not in the best interests of the Company, its clients, or Team Members”; “[You may not use a] signature line that contain religious, political, sexual or other inappropriate content.” The ALJ found the first rule was overbroad and unlawfully interfered with employees’ rights because an employee would believe that using email to harshly criticize the terms and conditions of employment would be considered “inappropriate” action “not in the best interest of the Company.” Similarly, the ALJ held that the second rule was unlawful and interfered with employees’ statutory rights because an employee would likely believe that “inappropriate content” would include speech protected by Section 7 of the NLRA.
  •  “[You may not] “Communicat[e] with the media without express authorization from the Corporate Communications Team.” The ALJ found this to be a “straightforward” violation of the NLRA because employees have a right to communicate with the media on subjects relating to their terms and conditions of employment, including but not limited to formation of and membership in and representation by unions.

Found to be Lawful Rules:

  • “From time to time, team members may have access to private Company information, for example, information about financial performance, strategy, forecasts, etc. Such information is confidential, any may not be shared with people or entities outside the Company—including members of the media.” The ALJ said this provision was lawful because, based on the explanation of the type of information covered by the rule, employees would reasonably understand that the rule related to their employers’ interest in the security of their proprietary information and not to information protected by Section 7.
  •  Unacceptable conduct includes: “Harassment: verbal, physical, or visual harassment of a team member, client, consultant, business partner, vendor or any other person associated with the Company.” The ALJ stated that this was lawful because employees have a right to a workplace free of unlawful harassment.
  • “You acknowledge and agree that: (a) all documents . . . and (b) all office equipment and supplies . . . are and shall remain the property of the Company . . . The ALJ held that this was lawful because it included no language prohibiting the sharing, copying or dissemination of employee lists or other information that is described as company property.
  • Transmission of Sensitive Information. Sensitive information must not be transmitted over the Internet without prior management approval.” The ALJ said that this was lawful because the Big Book defined Sensitive Information and provided 21 examples of such information. Thus, it would be unreasonable for an employee to conclude that he was precluded by this work rule from transmitting Section 7 information.
  •  “Personal Electronic Devices. Approval from management . . . is needed before any Sensitive Company information is stored on a personal electronic device, and the amount of information stored should be kept to a minimum. Special protection needs to be enabled on each device to ensure that the stored information is kept secure. The ALJ found that an employee would not likely construe “sensitive” information to include information protected by Section 7 activity.

Based on the findings, the ALJ ordered Respondents to cease and desist from maintaining the overly broad work rules.  Respondents, however, had already done so:  on December 4, 2015, by email notice sent to all employees, the Respondents rescinded all versions of the Big Book, effective immediately.

This case is yet another example of the NLRB’s continued broad view of what constitutes “concerted protected activity,” “work rules” and unlawful activity under the Act.  Because the distinction between an overbroad and lawful work rule is not always clear-cut, any employer subject to the Act (one whose company affects commerce) should carefully review its various agreements and policies, whether in an nondisclosure agreement, offer letter, handbook, manual, separation agreement, or the like to ensure that they do not contain rules that would potentially chill union-related activities.  Taking a proactive approach will put employers in the best possible position if they have to face scrutiny from the NLRB.

NLRB Finds a Non-Union Employee’s Foul-MouthedA recent National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) decision by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found numerous violations of the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) stemming from the reaction of a mortgage brokerage firm to a conversation in which one of its bankers used profanity and complained about a client in an office restroom.  While this decision may seem extreme to some, it is also an example of the expansive view that the NLRB is taking in deciding what types of employee communication and activities, particularly with respect to non-unionized workforces, will be found to be protected by the Act as “concerted activity” relating to employees’ terms and conditions of employment.

A brief overview of the facts is worth reciting to shed light on the decision.  Quicken Loans, Inc. and Austin Laff, an Individual, Case Number 28-CA-146517, centered around Austin Laff, a mortgage banker, who had a conversation with a co-worker, another mortgage banker, in a workplace restroom near the company reception area.  While the precise content of the conversation was in dispute, Laff claimed that he asked the other banker how it was going and that this banker then complained about a new client that “should get in touch with a [f-ing] Client Care Specialist and quit wasting his [f-ing] time.”  A supervisor who overheard the conversation thereafter sent an email to all employees in the Company’s Arizona’s office stating, “Under no circumstances should we be discussing the pay we receive, in an area that a client or potential client could ever hear us. . . . Never, EVER should we be swearing in the bathroom especially about clients.”  When Laff was later questioned by another supervisor about the restroom conversation, he claimed “that he had no clue” about the incident.  Given his complete denial, Laff was given separation documents and terminated.  After the termination, Laff claimed he was party to the conversation but it was his co-worker who made the alleged comments.  The Company then issued a disciplinary warning to the co-worker for making the comments.

Laff filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, claiming he had been terminated for engaging in actions protected by the Act.  Following an investigation, the Board’s Regional Director issued a complaint and the matter was referred to a hearing before an ALJ to determine the facts and assess whether the employer had violated the Act.  Notably, in cases such as this, where there are disputed facts, the NLRB will refer the cases for hearing.

After a 3 day trial, the ALJ found multiple violations of the Act.  We highlight a few of these findings as they reflect the expansive definition that the NLRB is applying to protected concerted activity in recent times:

  • Laff and His Co-worker Engaged in Concerted Protected Activity. Section 7 of the Act, in pertinent part, states: “Employees shall have the right to self-organization to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.” Finding that Laff and his co-worker were discussing “common concerns regarding terms and conditions of their employment,” including how calls are forwarded and whose responsibility it was to field calls with the goal of improving terms and conditions of employment, the ALJ concluded that their discussions were concerted protected activity. The fact that their conversation was arguably only preliminary (i.e., one that only laid the groundwork for possible further group activity) did not change the conclusion.
  • The Termination of Laff and Discipline of the Co-worker Violated the Act. Given that Laff and the co-worker were engaged in concerted protected activity that formed the basis of their alleged misconduct, the ALJ determined that the discharge and warning violated the Act. The ALJ rejected the Company’s assertion that it would have disciplined the co-worker in the absence of the protected activities due to his profanity because there was evidence of regular and tolerated use of profanity in the workplace.
  • The Email to Employees About Appropriate Language Constituted Unlawful Rules. A work rule violates Section 8(a)(1) of the Act if it “would reasonably chill employees in the exercise of their statutory rights.” The ALJ found that the email sent by the supervisor contained rules that were unlawful on their face because they specifically prohibited employees from discussing their terms and conditions of employment and their pay, even though the restriction of such discussions may actually have been intended to be limited to instances in which clients or potential clients could overhear based on the ALJ’s view that anyone could be a “potential client.” Likewise, the ALJ found that the rule, “Never, EVER should we be swearing in the bathroom, especially about clients,” and the prohibition against stating “that clients that call in are wasting your [expletive] time” also violated the Act because they were promulgated in direct response to Section 7 concerted and protected activity.
  • Laff Was Unlawfully Interrogated. Questioning by an employer regarding the employees’ own concerted protected activity or that of other employees is unlawful under the Act if it would reasonably have a tendency to interfere with, restrain or coerce employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights. The supervisor’s questioning of Laff was found to be improper because rather than ask whether he had engaged in any specific misconduct, he was asked whether he saw the office-wide email and if “he had any part in the situation that went down.” This questioning was considered to be coercive and to violate Section 8(a)(1).
  • Standard Separation Documents Provided to Laff Violated the Act. In addition to finding the confidentiality provision of the separation agreement improperly overbroad, the ALJ found that the agreement’s fairly standard obligation to return all company property was overly broad because it restricted employees from providing items like employee handbooks to government agencies and private counsel. Additionally, the ALJ determined that the agreement’s non-solicitation provision restricting employees from contacting or soliciting the Company’s employees or clients “for any reason” was overly broad and unlawful. Citing a 2013 decision that also involved Quicken Loans, the ALJ stated that employees are allowed to criticize their employer and its products under Section 7, and sometimes they do so in appealing to the public or to their fellow employees in order to gain support.

This case demonstrates the current broad view of the NLRB as to what constitutes a “concerted protected activity,” interrogation, “work rules” and unlawful activity under the Act.  In light of this, employers subject to the Act (essentially employers whose companies affect commerce) should be mindful that disciplining or terminating employees who may be engaged in concerted activities (such as complaining about clients) may run afoul of Section 8 of the Act.  Employers also should look at their various agreements (handbooks, offer letters, manuals, separation agreements, etc.) to ensure that they do not require employees to keep secret “all” proprietary/confidential information, prohibit employees from soliciting employees or clients “for any reason,” or require employees to return “all” company property.  Such requirements may be deemed overly broad and unlawful.  Finally, managers should be cautioned about sending emails or communicating other broad requirements that could be deemed overbroad work rules.

Our colleague Lauri F. Rasnick put together “Five Documents That Financial Services Employers Should Revisit Now” in this month’s Take 5 newsletter.  Below is an excerpt:

With summer here, including its long days and blazing heat, many thoughts may turn to beaches, sunshine, and lazy afternoons. The summer may also be a good time for employers—especially those in the financial services sector—to take stock of some of their more important employment documents. In light of recent developments, this month’s Take 5 discusses five employment documents worth checking:

  1. Separation Agreements
  2. Promissory Notes
  3. Non-Solicitation Agreements
  4. Arbitration Agreements
  5. Reasonable Accommodation Policies

Read the full newsletter here.

Our colleague Lauri Rasnick, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, wrote a Law360 article titled “Drafting Customer Nonsolicitation Provisions in NY.” (Read the full version – subscription required.)

Following is an excerpt:

A recent New York Appellate Division First Department decision, TBA Global LLC v. Proscenium Events LLC, et al., Index Nos. 10948, 651171/12, (1st Dept Feb. 5, 2014), may not answer all questions about drafting enforceable nonsolicitation provisions, but it does shed some light on the current state of New York law.

The Lower Court Decision

The case was brought by TBA Global LLC, a live events marketing company that arranges and produces live event programs and marketing presentations for companies and products, against three former employees and their new company. Each of the former employees was subject to a nonsolicitation contract. After they simultaneously resigned, the three former employees all began to immediately compete with TBA.

TBA’s complaint alleged that the former employees improperly set up the competing business while employed at TBA, and that they violated their restrictive covenants through their activities. On summary judgment, the trial court only considered the latter claim — whether the restrictive covenants at issue were enforceable as a matter of law.

By: Lauri F. Rasnick

At our October 2012 client briefing we discussed the new attitude of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) and the fact that non-unionized employers were not immune from the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).  The NLRA has been increasingly applied in non-union workplaces.  And most recently, it has found its way into the financial services industry.  In a recent NLRB administrative law judge’s decision, provisions contained in a mortgage banker’s employment agreement were found violative of the NLRA.  The provisions at issue are fairly typical in financial firms’ agreements – confidentiality and proprietary information and non-disparagement.  These are the types of provisions commonly employed to protect a company’s valuable assets and its reputation.  Our Advisory discusses the decision in depth and what it means for employers.

Read the full version on ebglaw.com.