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April 23, 2014

Board Reverses 34-year Rule and Requires Employers to Give Unions Actual Witness Statement

Since 1978, the National Labor Relations Board has allowed employers to refuse to provide unions with copies of witness statements obtained during an investigation of employee misconduct.  In Anheuser-Busch, 237 NLRB 982 (1978), the Board agreed with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that disclosure of witness statements to a union would create a risk of coercion and intimidation and could well cause witnesses to be reluctant to provide truthful statements or participate in Board investigations.  Recognizing that a union may have a legitimate need for information related to the investigation, the Board required employers to provide summaries of the witness statements to the union.  This requirement balanced the confidentiality rights of the employees providing the statements with the union’s interest in relevant information.

The Board has rejected this “bright-line” rule and replaced it with a “balancing test” to decide when and under what circumstances an employer must give the union actual witness statements.  Under this new approach, articulated in American Baptist Homes of the West, d/b/a Piedmont Gardens, 359 NLRB No. 46 (2012), employers must produce witness statements to a union upon request unless the employer can prove its confidentiality interest outweighs the union’s need for the information.

In Piedmont Gardens, the employer operated a continuing care facility that offered independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing care level options to its residents.  In June 2011, a charge nurse informed the Human Resources Director that she had seen two certified nursing assistants sleeping on the job.  The HR Director asked the charge nurse to prepare a written statement and assured her it would be kept confidential.  Another charge nurse who witnessed the sleeping employees prepared a written statement after learning that her fellow charge nurse had done so, but without an assurance of confidentiality.  Based on the witness statements, one of the sleeping employees was terminated.

The union requested all written statements relied on in making the termination decision and the names and job titles of everyone who was involved in the investigation.  The employer refused to provide any of the requested information, but it offered to work with the union to reach an “accommodation to disclosure.”  No information was provided to the union, and it filed an unfair labor practice charge.

The Board majority held that the employer was required to provide the witnesses’ names and job titles, along with the witness statement from the charge nurse who was not assured of confidentiality.  However, the Board stated it would not apply its new standard in this case because it would cause a “manifest injustice” to the employer who was guided by the Anheuser-Buschstandard.  Thus, the employer did not have to provide the witness statements of employees who were told their statements would remain confidential.

The discarded Anheuser-Busch standard provided employers and unions certainty about their respective rights and obligations regarding disclosure of witness statements given during an employer’s investigation of possible wrongdoing.  The new standard eviscerates certainty and creates a standard that is vague, subjective and outcomes will be unpredictable because each situation will be based on its unique and nuanced facts.  As noted by dissenting Board Member Hayes, the new standard “will often put human relations officials…in the position of making a legal assessment whether their employer’s confidentiality interests are legitimate, substantial, and superior to the interest of the union requesting witness statements.”

This ruling follows another recent Board decision that ruled employers can no longer, as a matter of human resource practice or policy, require employees to maintain confidentiality of investigatory interviews.  Banner Health System, d/b/a Banner Estrella Medical Center, 358 NLRB No. 93 (2012). Unionized employers now must consider when and how they can give confidentiality assurances to employees who provide witness statements and under what parameters the employer’s confidentiality interests are more important than the union’s right to obtain witness statements. Employers should analyze their investigatory practices and policies in light of these two rulings.

The likely real-world implications for unionized employers is that unions will demand witness statements with regularity and, if the employer refuses, file unfair labor practice charges.  More frequent involvement of legal counsel may well be necessary because of the vague and fact-specific balancing act employers are now required to make.

©2014 Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. All Rights Reserved

About the Author

Partner

Mark D. Nelson is a partner in the Labor & Employment Practice Group. Mark has represented management in labor relations and employment discrimination law for 25 years. He has extensive experience representing employers in a wide variety of industries in labor matters, including union avoidance, union organizing campaigns, labor disputes and unfair labor practice proceedings.

Mark also has considerable experience representing employers in arbitration hearings on issues such as discharge, discipline, contract interpretation and management rights. He has...

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