Statute of Limitations

On May 21, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) published a memorandum discussing a new agreement between NLRB and OSHA regarding a backdoor route for employees to file safety related whistleblower claims that are too stale to be filed with OSHA.  The NLRB memo directs OSHA representatives to “notify all complainants who file an untimely [OSHA] whistleblower charge of their right to file a charge with the NLRB.”  As a result of this agreement, employers should expect an increase in the number of unfair labor practice claims filed by employees alleging retaliation for protected safety related whistleblower activity.

Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (Section 11(c)) requires employees to file complaints alleging retaliation for protected safety related whistleblower activities within thirty days of the triggering adverse employment action.  The Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, Dr. David Michaels, recently testified before the Senate, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Employee and Workplace Safety about OSHA’s whistleblower program.  One of the key points of his testimony was that between 300 and 600 Section 11(c) complaints per year (roughly 10%) were filed beyond the 30-day deadline.  Dr. Michaels added that at least 100 of these complaints barely missed the deadline — by less than a month.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), on the other hand, addresses different types of claims and also provides for a much longer statute of limitations.  Section 7 of the NLRA provide: “Employees shall have the right to. . . engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual air or protection.”  Section 8 prohibits unfair labor practices that “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Section 7.”  The NLRA has a 6-month statute of limitations for claims of unfair labor practices.

Because the NLRA’s statute of limitations is six months longer than the OSH Act’s, OSHA agents will now advise employees who file an untimely Section 11(c) claim that their claims may qualify as unfair labor practices under the NLRA, and explain their rights to file such claims with the NLRB, where their claims could be timely.  For a claim to qualify for protection as an unfair labor practice, however, the claim must involve “concerted activities.”  Thus, not every employee who was unable to file a timely Section 11(c) complaint will have a viable unfair labor practice claim, even if it would be timely under the NLRA.

The NLRB has provided a set of talking points to OSHA to help the OHSA agents discuss these rights with employees:

  • OSHA recommends that you contact the NLRB as soon as possible, to inquire about filing a charge
    alleging unfair labor practices.
  • The time limit to file a charge with the NLRB is 6 months from the unfair labor practice.
  • The NLRB is responsible for enforcing employee rights under the NLRA. The NLRA protects employee rights to act together to try to improve working conditions, including safety and health conditions, even if the employees aren’t in a union.
  • OSHA may not determine whether you are covered by the NLRA. Please contact the NLRB to discuss your rights under the NLRA.

OSHA also plans to include this information when it sends letters alerting employees that their 11(c) claims are being closed as untimely.

Neither the NLRB nor OSHA has addressed the legal issues posed by this agreement.  Congress intended that employees must file safety related whistleblower complaints very quickly, which is why it set such a short limitations period.  The short deadline for such claims makes sense because safety and health issues pose special risks; i.e., it is not a matter of fairness at stake, it is potentially a matter of life and death, where delays in reporting such issues could have grave consequences.  Creating a loophole or backdoor to extend the filing deadline for claims that could have been timely pursued as 11(c) claims by treating them as NLRA violations could discourage timely reporting under the OSH Act.
Continue Reading OSHA and NLRB Create Loophole for Stale Safety Whistleblower Claims

On the heels of its 2-1 decision in Hyman v. KD Resources, allowing equitable estoppel to extend the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) statute of limitations (noted in our blog posting of April 20, 2010), the Department of Labor Administrative Review Board (ARB) has issued a unanimous decision clarifying the burden for whistleblowers to survive dismissal of complaints that are not filed within the explicit 90-day statute of limitations. Daryanani v. Royal & Sun Alliance, ARB No. 08-106, ALJ No. 2007-SOX-79 (ARB May 27, 2010).

Adhering to the principle that equitable estoppel may apply when certain employer conduct interferes with a whistleblower-employee’s exercise of rights, the ARB nevertheless refused to extend the SOX statute of limitations on the basis of alleged inaction by an employer. Holding equitable estoppel would not be available in the circumstances, the ARB observed that the employer had no affirmative obligation to:

  • inform the employee of potential causes of action,
  • inform the employee of time limitations applicable under statutes creating a cause of action, or
  • counter-sign a severance release agreement within the statute of limitations deadline.


Continue Reading ARB Clarifies Burden Whistleblowers Bear for Equitable Extension of SOX Statute of Limitations

By: Allen B. Roberts, Victoria M. Sloan

Employers who thought they were free of exposure if no complaint was filed within the statute of limitations applicable in Sarbanes-Oxley ("SOX") and other whistleblower claims administered by the Secretary of Labor need to recalibrate their risk based on a recent decision allowing equitable estoppel.

In Hyman v. KD Resources, an employee missed the 90-day SOX statute of limitations by filing his complaint 160 days after he was discharged. Two newly appointed members of the Administrative Review Board (“ARB”) allowed the complaint to survive and remanded it to the Administrative Law Judge who had dismissed it as untimely.


Continue Reading Newly Constituted Administrative Review Board Allows Equitable Considerations to Extend 90-Day Statute of Limitations for Whistleblower Claims