The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, that employment arbitration agreements that bar class actions are enforceable.  The vote was 5 to 4 in upholding the use of arbitration agreements in the workplace.

The plaintiff in the case argued that employees could not waive their rights in an agreement to be a part of a class action to pursue employment claims because this waiver violated the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) because these types of claims are “concerted activities” protected by § 7 of the NLRA.  This section guarantees employees “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively . . ., and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

The Court disagreed with plaintiff’s reading of § 7, and held: “The NLRA secures to employees rights to organize unions and bargain collectively, but it says nothing about how judges and arbitrators must try legal disputes that leave the workplace and enter the courtroom or arbitral forum. This Court has never read a right to class actions into the NLRA – and for three quarters of a century neither did the National Labor Relations Board.”

In 2011, the Supreme Court issued a decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, upholding the enforceability of class action waivers in the consumer context, such as with cell phone providers, cable providers or services provided by internet companies.  The plaintiff in Epic Systems argued that the employment context was different because of the rights guaranteed to employees under the NLRA.  While many employers were using arbitration agreements with class action waivers, the ruling in Epic Systems confirms the enforceability of these agreements between employees and employers.

This decision resolves a split in authority between the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (Ernst & Young v. Morris), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc.), and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis).

See my prior post for additional background on the case and impact on California employers.

In October 2012 the National Labor Relations Board issued an advice memorandum regarding whether an employer’s social media policy violated the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). This memorandum is of importance because the NLRB has issued findings recently that employer’s seemingly neutral social media policies violated employees’ rights under the NLRA. Section 7 of the NLRA provides that employees have the right to self-organize, form, join or assist labor organizations, and generally “engage in other concerted activities.” Section 8 of the NLRA makes it unlawful for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7.” This prohibits applies to all employers, even if the employees are not unionized.

In the memorandum the NLRB sets forth its two step analysis in determining whether a “work rule” “would reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.” First, the NLRB examine whether the rule “is clearly unlawful if it explicitly restricts Section 7 protected activities.” Second, the rule is examined to determine if “(1) employees would reasonably construe the language to prohibit Section 7 activity; (2) the rule was promulgated in response to union activity; or (3) the rule has been applied to restrict the exercise of Section 7 rights.” While the Board said that a rule “that could conceivably be read to restrict Section 7 activity” would does not automatically violate the NLRA, but if the rule is ambiguous and contains no limiting language or context to clarify that it does not restrict their Section 7 rights would be in violation.

The case at issue in the memorandum involved Cox Communications. The company had a standard social media policy:

Nothing in Cox’s social media policy is designed to interfere with, restrain, or prevent employee communications regarding wages, hours, or other terms and conditions of employment. Cox Employees have the right to engage in or refrain from such activities. . . .

DO NOT make comments or otherwise communicate about customers, coworkers, supervisors, the Company, or Cox vendors or suppliers in a manner that is vulgar, obscene, threatening, intimidating, harassing, libelous, or discriminatory on the basis of age, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, genetic information, disability, national origin, ethnicity, citizenship, marital status, or any other legally recognized protected basis under federal, state, or local laws, regulations, or ordinances. Those communications are disrespectful and unprofessional and will not be tolerated by the Company. . .

DO respect the laws regarding copyrights, trademarks, rights of publicity and other third-party rights. To minimize the risk of a copyright violation, you should provide references to the source(s) of information you use and accurately cite copyrighted works you identify in your online communications. Do not infringe on Cox logos, brand names, taglines, slogans, or other trademarks.

An employee was fired for violating this policy by posting an offensive and derogatory comment on his Google+ account via his cell phone. The company suspended the employee and conducted a further investigation, which revealed that the employee made numerous other posts “containing lewd language which disparaged customers.” The company terminated the employee.

Applying the analysis above to Cox Communication’s social media policy, the NLRB found that the policy did not violate the NLRA. The Board said that the examples of egregious conduct listed in Cox Communication’s policy established a context that “clearly would not be reasonably understood to restrict Section 7 activity.” Also, the policy’s savings clause that specifically set forth that it was not designed to violate any communications employees had the legal right to make, also supported the finding that it did not violate Section 7.

The NLRB memorandum can be read here (PDF)