Special thanks to our summer associate Brianna Miller for her contributions to this post.
In Trinity Services Group, Inc. v. NLRB, No. 20-1014 (June 1, 2021), the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit recently rejected the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) attempt to prohibit employers from expressing opinions the NLRB considers baseless. In reversing the NLRB, the Court held that the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) only prohibits employer speech containing a threat of reprisal or the promise of benefits, and that expressions which are merely “views, arguments or opinions” are not unlawful.
No threat of reprisal or promise of benefits means the statement–even if not based in fact–is not illegal
The case arose when an employee discovered a mix-up regarding the amount of her accrued paid leave. When she raised the issue with her supervisor, he pinned the blame on the union. The NLRB and the Court both found there was no objective basis for blaming the union rather than the employer for the mix-up.
The Court examined the provisions in Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, which proscribes certain speech. Section 8(a)(1) makes it unlawful for an employer to “interfere with, restrain or coerce employees” in the rights guaranteed by the Act. The Court also considered the provisions in Section 8(c) which guarantees parties freedom of speech, specifically that “[t]he expression of any views, argument, or opinion…shall not constitute an unfair labor practice.” The Court sought to reconcile the two provisions, and holding that only speech containing a threat of reprisal or promise of benefits is prohibited by the NLRA, while Section 8(c) protects “any” view, argument or opinion. The Court held the statement the NLRB found illegal contained neither a threat of reprisal or the promise of benefit and thus was not illegal. Undeterred by the plain meaning of the word “any,” the NLRB requested the Court to create an exception under Section 8(c) for statements which are “patently false.” The Court rejected that request as contrary to the plain language of the section.