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April 20, 2014

Deconstructing Costco

Much has been written about the NLRB’s recent holding in the seminal Costco case that the company’s facially neutral social media policy prohibiting postings on the Internet that damage the Company or any person’s reputation violates Section 8(a)(1) of the Act.  But it is also important to understand how the Board came to decide that case in order to better evaluate the appropriate employer response.

The controlling law concerning the validity of facially neutral work rules was established in the 2004 decision in Lutheran Heritage Village in which the Board held that in evaluating such rules it must determine whether employees “would reasonably construe” the language as restricting their Section 7 to engage in protected discussions of their terms and conditions of employment, and recognized that the mere fact that a rule could be read as inhibiting employee rights is insufficient to support a finding that the rule is unlawful.  The Board also observed that it should apply a “reasonable” interpretation to such rules without “reading particular phrases in isolation” and without assuming the employer intended to interfere with protected rights.

When the Costco case was tried before an Administrative Law Judge in 2010, the Acting General Counsel charged the employer with violating Section 8(a)(1) with respect to a number of provisions in its Electronic Communications and Technology Policy, including the requirement that employees use “appropriate business decorum” on social media sites and the prohibition of postings that “damage” the company or anyone’s reputation, because there was no limiting disclaimer to advise the employees that the rule was not intended to restrict their protected rights.  In this respect, the Acting General Counsel argued that the ALJ should reject the Lutheran Heritage Village “would reasonably construe” standard and apply instead the standard from the dissenting opinion in that case by former Members Liebman and Walsh – that an ambiguous rule that does not include a disclaimer is unlawful if it could be perceived as inhibiting Section 7 rights – because the dissenting opinion would likely be accepted by the majority of the newly composed Board.  The ALJ  rightly rejected that proposition, and specifically recognized that under the controlling Lutheran Heritage Village standard the Board “will not conclude that a reasonable employee would read the rule to [prohibit protected] activity simply because the rule could be interpreted that way  . . . [or] could conceivably be read to” encompass protected conduct.  The ALJ then determined that neither Costco rule was unlawful under the applicable “would reasonably construe” standard because reasonable employees would understand that the rules were intended to promote civility rather than restrict Section 7 activity.

In its decision on appeal, the newly composed Board majority adopted the ALJ’s reasoning that Costco’s “appropriate business decorum” rule was lawful, but found the rule prohibiting comments damaging to the company to be unlawful.  In so finding, the Board purports to recognize the continued validity of Lutheran Heritage Village, and gives lip service to the “would reasonably construe” standard, but tacitly applied the “could be read” standard advocated by the Acting General Counsel.  In this regard, the Board adopted the approach of the Liebman-Walsh dissent by holding that in the absence of a limiting disclaimer the rule “allows employees to reasonably assume that it pertains to” protected comments critical of the company’s management.  It is significant that the Board did not engage in any analysis to determine whether the company’s employees “would reasonably construe” the language of the rule as restricting or prohibiting protected communications, but held the rule to be unlawful only because employees could assume it would in the absence of a limiting disclosure.

The Board has applied the “could be” read standard in two more recent cases.  First, in Flex Frac Logistics, LLC, the Board specifically referred to ambiguous work rules as “rules that reasonably could be read to” inhibit Section 7 rights.  Then in Karl Knauz Motors, Inc., the Board rejected the employer’s Courtesy Rule, which required employees to be courteous in their interactions with customers and coworkers, because it also prohibited employees from being disrespectful or using profanity.  Again giving lip service to Lutheran Heritage Village but applying the standard of the Liebman-Walsh dissent, the Board focused on the “disrespectful” language in isolation and held that in the absence of a limiting disclaimer the rule was unlawful because employees “would reasonably assume” that the employer would punish them for being disrespectful if they raised questions about their terms or conditions of employment.  That approach ignores the requirement that rules should be looked at from the perspective of whether employees would reasonably read the entire rule, in context, as restricting their right to discuss terms and conditions of employment, not whether someone – members of the Acting General Counsel’s staff or Board Members – could theoretically reach that conclusion as an academic legal exercise.

In light of these opinions and the Acting General Counsel’s continued focus on non-union social media policies, employers should expect that the Board will continue to take an expansive approach in holding such policies unlawful if they could be read as restricting protected communications.  Because the Costco majority adopted the Liebman-Walsh reasoning that it is the absence of an accompanying disclaimer that permits employees to assume that facially neutral rules could be applied to restrict their right to engage in protected activity, employers should at a minimum consider including specific limiting disclaimers in those sections of their policies to make clear that the prohibitions are not intended to restrict or interfere with protected communications.

©2014 Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. All Rights Reserved

About the Author

Counsel

Jerrold J. Wohlgemuth is Counsel in the firm’s Labor & Employment Practice Group where he concentrates on defending corporate, pharmaceutical and health care clients in all aspects of employment litigation involving claims of discrimination, wrongful discharge, sexual harassment, whistle blowing and other employment-related issues. Jerry previously worked in the National Labor Relations Board's Office of Appellate Litigation in Washington where he represented the Board before the federal Courts of Appeals throughout the country, and has extensive appellate experience at both...

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