By Adam C. Abrahms and Steven M. Swirsky
In another major defeat for President Obama’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board), the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit found that the Board lacked the authority to issue a 2011 rule which would have required all employers covered by the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”), including those whose employees are not unionized, to post a workplace notice to employees. The putative Notice, called a “Notification of Employee Rights Under the National Labor Relations Act,” is intended to ostensibly inform employees of their rights to join and be represented by unions and to engage in other activity protected by the Act. The rule would also have made it an unfair labor practice for an employer to fail to post the required notice and such failure also could be considered proof of anti-union animus in other Board proceedings.
Although proposed in 2011 and scheduled to become effective on April 30, 2012, the requirement has yet been put into effect. As we discussed previously, last year, the US District Court for the District of Columbia had held that the Board lacked the authority to make it an unfair labor practice for an employer to fail to post the notice, holding that this exceeded the Board’s authority under the Act. Just prior to the rule going into effect, the DC Court of Appeals issued an emergency injunction in support of the District Court’s opinion and the NLRB opted to not enforce the rule pending the appeal.
Perhaps what is most noteworthy about the Court’s recent opinion, authored by Senior Circuit Judge Randolph, is the Court’s reliance on employers’ free speech rights which are protected by Section 8(c) of the Act. That section of the Act ensures employers the right to communicate their views concerning unions to their employees. The Court noted that while Section 8(c) “precludes the Board from finding non coercive employer speech to be an unfair labor practice, or evidence of an unfair labor practice, the Board’s rule does both.” That is because under the rule an employer’s failure to post the required notice would constitute an unfair labor practice and the Board’s rule would have allowed the Board to “consider an employer’s ‘knowing and willful’ noncompliance to be ‘evidence of anti union animus in cases in which unlawful motive [is] an element of an unfair labor practice.”
The Court focused on the question of the right of employers to “free speech,” under both Section 8(c) of the Act and under the First Amendment to the Constitution, noting that the rule would have required employers to disseminate information and that “the right to disseminate another’s speech necessarily includes the right to decide not to disseminate it,” relying on analysis from prior Supreme Court and appellate court decisions which it referred to as “compelled speech” cases.
Interestingly, the Court’s conclusion that the Board’s rule violates Section 8(c) because it makes an employer’s failure to post the Board’s notice an unfair labor practice, and because it treats such a failure as evidence of anti-union animus, suggests the Board might be able to find an alternate route to a notice posting requirement if it did not seek to create such a remedy for an employer’s failure to post the notice. However, the Court refused to leave the portion of the Board’s rule requiring the Notice posting in effect even without the enforcement and remedial provisions, because they were an inherent part of the Board’s purpose in adopting the rule. For now the beleaguered Board will need to decide whether it wishes to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court, attempt to craft a new rule with the currently constituted Board that this same Court of Appeals has ruled was unconstitutionally appointed in its Noel Canning decision or postpone any action until a new Board is confirmed by the Senate.