Thursday, December 19, 2019
I’ve now had a chance to do a more careful read of Rio, which confirmed my earlier sense that both the majority and dissent have almost fully adopted the early positions of Register Guard and Purple Communications, respectively (although Rio does, as it should, appear to expand its logic to all electronic communications, rather than just email). This is not a surprise and, from a selfish point of view--at least while I’m trying to get through a stack of exams--makes it easier for commentators like me, as there’s not much new going on. I did want to comment more on one issue, however.
One argument that I’ve advocated since 2007 was that the combination of Supreme Court precedent and basic property law mandated the outcome of electronic communication cases. I’ve now seen a Board majority twice try to get around this argument and, to put it mildly, I haven’t been impressed. First, in Register Guard, the Board relied on a smattering of personal property cases involving things like a bulletin boards and photocopiers. I took down these cases in a subsequent book chapter, noting that they were essentially a bunch of cases, initially analyzing a different issue, self-citing each other and were ultimately based on an ALJ’s line of dicta in a single case. The Board in Purple Communications agreed, but in Rio the Board reaffirmed those cases, albeit while implicitly recognizing their weakness by briefly trying to defend them with an argument that it admits the cases themselves never relied on. But, really, Rio abandons those decisions as a basis for its electronic communications ruling. Instead, it relies on a second argument, one that finds that employer’s personal property rights trump employees’ Section 7 of the NLRA right to communicate. That’s the argument that I want to focus on here.
Let me start with some undeniable truths:
- Under the Supreme Court’s Republic Aviation decision, employees have a right to engage in NLRA speech while at work, with certain limits on the time and place. This is in spite of employers’ interest in controlling use of its real property.
- Under the Supreme Court’s Lechmere decision, non-employees almost never have right to engage in NLRA speech while on employer-controlled property.
- In Lechmere, the Court made crystal clear that the difference between its line of reasoning and Republic Aviation is whether or not the speaker is an employee. If so, Republic Aviation and the right to communicate on employer property usually exists; if not, Lechmere allows employers to exclude non-employee speech in almost all cases.
OK, a pause for a moment. At this point, employers and Board Members arguing that employees lack the right to use employer have a problem: the fact that the cases involve employees. The Supreme Court has made clear that employees, as opposed to non-employees, have right to engage in NLRA communications that typically trumps employer property interests. So, to get around this, one would need to either conclude that electronic communications involve either diminished NLRA interests or expanded employer property interests. The Board hasn’t tried to do the former, as they can’t—the Supreme Court has boxed them in with Lechmere and Republic Aviation. Thus, the Board in Rio, as it did earlier in Register Guard, has tried the latter. And here’s where I want to jump back in with a couple more truths.
- Under Republic Aviation, employers’ real property interests cannot be used to bar employees’ NLRA rights to communicate. They can limit communications to non-work time, for instance, but the Court is clear that when employees are already legitimately at work, real property interests (which, remember, is a legally granted interest) are outweighed by employees’ NLRA rights (another legally granted interest).
- Under basic property law, real property interests are stronger than personal property interests. A principle point on this is that personal property trespass requires a showing of harm, while real property trespass assumes such harm.
The Board in Rio seems to be disputing this final truth, although all it really does is cite a couple of law review articles that criticize the requirement that personal property trespass require a showing of harm in cases involving electronic property. The Board in Rio also argues that even if a trespass isn’t actionable under common law, it doesn’t mean that there is a right to such trespass. I have no dispute with that comment on its own, but it doesn’t have any relevance here because employees’ right to use electronic communications is coming from the NLRA, not state property law. Even if you accepted the Board’s implication that real property and personal property are on the same footing (which you shouldn’t do, because it’s wrong), that gets you . . . back to Republic Aviation. The only way one can honestly argue that Republic Aviation doesn’t apply is to conclude that property interests are entitled to more protection than real property interests. The Board doesn’t even pretend to do this. Indeed, it’s really stretching to find anything that might sound like the two property interests are on similar footing.
Here’s where I differ from Member McFerran’s dissent. She says that there is no Supreme Court precedent that requires the Board to rule either way on the electronic communications issue. That’s incorrect in my view. The logic of Republic Aviation, Lechmere, and basic property law does require a specific result: that employees’ use of employer electronic communications be treated at least as favorably as employee communications under Republic Aviation. There is some play in the distinctions that the Board has made between oral and written communications, which I’ve discussed before but won’t get into now. But the bottom line is that unless the Court abandons the employee/non-employee distinction that is the foundational difference between Republic Aviation and Lechmere, the decision in Rio is flat-out wrong. No policy deference exists that allows the Board to conflict with Supreme Court precedent. And the Board certainly can’t overrule state property law—something, as it has shown frequently, is not in its expertise.
I very much look forward to this case going up for appellate review. I certainly won’t predict that a court won’t enforce Rio, but I will argue strenuously that it shouldn’t. No matter what one thinks of the policies at stake in electronic communications cases, the Supreme Court’s rulings in this area lead to one, and only one, possible result. That’s the conclusion in Purple Communications that, under normal circumstances, employers cannot bar employees from engaging in NLRA-protected communications on employer equipment.