Tuesday, December 17, 2019
NLRB Flips Again on E-Mail, Concluding that Employees Typically Lack the Right to Use Employer E-Mail for NLRA Communications
Today, the NLRB issued its decision in Rio All-Suites Hotel, which concluded that employees typically lack the right to use employer provided e-mail under the NLRA. The Board explictly adopted the rationale of the earlier Register-Guard decision which held the same and overruled the subsequent Purple Communication, which had reversed Register-Guard. Given that the the Board is literally rehashing prior arguments (this issue is now on the official "flip-flop" list), I'm going to follow its lead and rehash my prior commentary on the issue. I'll claim exhaustion as a defense--I've written extensively about this topic (see, e.g., here, here, and here), including an amicus brief in Rio. And I'll no doubt do the same when the Board flips again.
One note before I get to the self-plagarism: A small victory in Rio is that the Board didn't pursue the First Amendment claim the Member Johnson advocated in his Purple Communications dissent. I thought it was a weak claim, but definitely one that the Board could've pursued.
When Register-Guard was first issued, I blogged the following about the decision, which--based on a skim of Rio--remains applicable today. There is one addition in Rio, which is "an exception to the Register Guard rule in those rare cases where an employer’s email system furnishes the only reasonable means for employees to communicate with one another." I'm honestly not sure this is new, because in Register Guard the Board seemed to suggest the same thing (while disclaiming it in a footnote)--which essentially, and incorrectly as McFerran's dissent notes, applies the Lechemere non-employee test to an employee activity situation. On to the rehash:
. . . The majority, in finding for the employer . . . took an overly restrictive view on the importance of emails, which was no shock given the oral argument. However, it also decided to reverse its precedent with regard to discriminatory conduct under Section 8(a)(1) and adopt a nonsensical position that only the Seventh Circuit has used. First, with regard to the email policy, the majority concluded that:
An employer has a “basic property right” to “regulate and restrict employee use of company property.” Union Carbide Corp. v. NLRB. The Respondent’s [employer's] communications system, including its e-mail system, is the Respondent’s property and was purchased by the Respondent for use in operating its business. The General Counsel concedes that the Respondent has a legitimate business interest in maintaining the efficient operation of its e-mail system, and that employers who have invested in an e-mail system have valid concerns about such issues as preserving server space, protecting against computer viruses and dissemination of confidential information, and avoiding company liability for employees’ inappropriate e-mails.
Whether employees have a specific right under the Act to use an employer’s e-mail system for Section 7 activity is an issue of first impression. In numerous cases, however, where the Board has addressed whether employees have the right to use other types of employer-owned property—such as bulletin boards, telephones, and televisions—for Section 7 communications, the Board has consistently held that there is “no statutory right . . . to use an employer’s equipment or media,” as long as the restrictions are nondiscriminatory. . . .
In contrast to the employer’s policy at issue in Republic Aviation, the Respondent’s [policy] does not regulate traditional, face-to-face solicitation. Indeed, employees at the Respondent’s workplace have the full panoply of rights to engage in oral solicitation on nonworking time and also to distribute literature on nonworking time in nonwork areas, pursuant to Republic Aviation and Stoddard-Quirk. What the employees seek here is use of the Respondent’s communications equipment to engage in additional forms of communication beyond those that Republic Aviation found must be permitted. Yet, “Section 7 of the Act protects organizational rights . . . rather than particular means by which employees may seek to communicate.” Guardian Industries Corp. . . . Republic Aviationrequires the employer to yield its property interests to the extent necessary to ensure that employees will not be “entirely deprived,” of their ability to engage in Section 7 communications in the workplace on their own time. It does not require the most convenient or most effective means of conducting those communications, nor does it hold that employees have a statutory right to use an employer’s equipment or devices for Section 7 communications.
The majority's analysis here is weak. The personal property cases that the majority cites to over and over in its decision are very thin reeds, as none of them engaged in any real analysis of the issue (it's a classic string of "it's well-established that . . ." statements which, if you keep going back, are based on little more than an un-cited throwaway line by an ALJ). Moreover, the idea that an employer can control use of its personal property any way it chooses is counter to property law. As chattel, personal property has less protection than real property (which the Supreme Court has held that employer's don't have full control of vis a vis labor rights). The NLRB's distinguishing of Republic Aviation also sounds disturbingly like the Supreme Court's nonemployee solicitation analysis in Lechmere--which even the Court took pains to differentiate from the employee solicitation context of Republican Aviation. Finally, as I've written about at great length, I could not disagree more with the majority's rejection of the dissent's argument that email has so dramatically effected the workplace that it's worth a special rule. The dissent would adopt a rule that would presume that restrictions on email use are unlawful absent special circumstances. I'm obviously supportive, given that I argued for that exact rule.
It is also important to note that Rio leaves Register-Guard's narrow view of the discrimination exception to this rule. I never understood why the Obama Board in Purple Communications left that undisturbed, but that piece of Register-Guard has now remained the same for a while I've described that exception as follows:
The circuit courts have been all over the place in trying to define what "discrimination" means in the solicitation context. To quote my own summary of the various definitions of discrimination, which include: "giving access to all groups but unions; allowing only work-related or isolated charitable solicitations; allowing all charitable solicitations; and favoring one union over another or allowing distributions by employers, but not unions." The Board adopted the last of these, which is the Seventh Circuit's approach (and which the Board had previously refused to follow under its non-acquiescence policy):
In Guardian Industries, the court started from the proposition that employers may control the activities of their employees in the workplace, “both as a matter of property rights (the employer owns the building) and of contract (employees agree to abide by the employer’s rules as a condition of employment).” Although an employer, in enforcing its rules, may not discriminate against Section 7 activity, the court noted that the concept of discrimination involves the unequal treatment of equals. The court emphasized that the employer had never allowed employees to post notices of organizational meetings. Rather, the nonwork-related postings permitted by the employer consisted almost entirely of “swap and shop” notices advertising personal items for sale. The court stated: “We must therefore ask in what sense it might be discriminatory to distinguish between for-sale notes and meeting announcements.” The court ultimately concluded that “[a] rule banning all organizational notices (those of the Red Cross along with meetings pro and con unions) is impossible to understand as disparate treatment of unions.”
Thus, in order to be unlawful, discrimination must be along Section 7 lines. In other words, unlawful discrimination consists of disparate treatment of activities or communications of a similar character because of their union or other Section 7-protected status. For example, an employer clearly would violate the Act if it permitted employees to use e-mail to solicit for one union but not another, or if it permitted solicitation by antiunion employees but not by prounion employees
In the end, Rio is disappointing, but not surprising. And almost certainly not the last word once a new adminsitration comes in. Also, I am very curious to see what an appellate court does with the rule. As I explained, I think its directly in conflict both with Supreme Court precedent and basic property law. So a court could reject the rule. Note that the D.C. Circuit didn't approve of Register Guard, reversing it on another issue. So we shall see . . . .