Nondisparagement clauses have long been a staple in settlement agreements between employers and employees as a way to discourage disgruntled employees from debasing the company after they have departed. Nondisparagement clauses often require employees to refrain from saying anything negative about their former employer at all. But employers should keep a few things in mind to ensure that the use of a nondisparagement clause does not create additional risk for the company.
Keep an Eye Out for Activity by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
The NLRB has signaled it may revisit current Board precedent holding nondisparagement agreements in employee settlement agreements are legal-meaning employers should watch out for Board action or decisions reverting to restrictions on nondisparagement agreements. On August 12, 2021, in her first memo as NLRB General Counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo issued a Mandatory Submissions to Advice Memorandum, setting forth that NLRB Regional Directors, Officers-in-Charge, and Resident Officers must submit certain types of cases to the NLRB Division of Advice (“Advice”) (which, in addition to other duties, provides guidance to the NLRB’s Regional Offices regarding difficult and novel issues arising in the processing of unfair labor practice charges).
Abruzzo identified 11 areas of Board case law involving doctrinal shifts from previous Board precedent that the Board, through submissions to Advice, would be examining-including “cases finding that separation agreements that contain…nondisparagement clauses…lawful.”
Abruzzo highlighted cases involving the applicability of Baylor University Medical Center, 369 NLRB No. 43 (2020), overruling Clark Distribution Systems, 336 NLRB 747 (2001), and International Game Technology, 370 NLRB No. 50 (2020) to be submitted to Advice for review.
Before it was overruled, Clark Distribution Systems stated that a provision in the confidentiality clause of a severance agreement prohibiting the employee from voluntarily appearing as a witness, voluntarily providing documents or information, or otherwise assisting in the prosecution of any claims against the company unlawfully chilled the employees’ Section 7 rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)(which guarantees employees “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection,” as well as the right “to refrain from any or all such activities.”)
The provisions at issue in the severance agreements in Baylor University Medical Center included a “No Participation in Claims” provision in which the departing employee agreed not to assist or participate in any claim brought by a third party against Baylor (unless compelled by law to do so), and a “Confidentiality” provision in which the employee agreed to keep confidential any of Baylor’s confidential information made known to the employee during their employment. The complainants alleged that by offering the severance agreements with these provisions, Baylor violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA (which makes it an unfair labor practice for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Section 7” of the Act). The Board disagreed, in part because the severance agreement only pertained to postemployment activities having no impact on terms and conditions of employment. The Board also found that Baylor’s mere offer of the separation agreement was not coercive or otherwise unlawful, and that there was no sign that the agreement was offered under circumstances that would tend to infringe on the separating employees’ exercise of their own or their co-workers’ Section 7 rights.
International Game Technology (IGT) applied Baylor to a separation agreement with a nondisparagement clause, finding in that case that the severance agreement at issue was entirely voluntary, did not affect pay or benefits that were established as terms of employment, and was not offered coercively-and the nondisparagement provision did not tend to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights under the Act.
What to do?
What should employers do now given the NLRB review of cases applying Baylor and International Game Technology to ensure they don’t run afoul of the NLRA when using nondisparagement clauses in settlement agreements with employees? Employers should:
- Keep an eye out for changes in the law stemming from the NLRB’s review of cases applying Baylor and International Game Technology.
- Use precise language to make it clear that a nondisparagement clause only applies at the time of and after termination, to avoid claims that the terms of the clause interfere with an employee’s Section 7 rights under the NLRA.
- Consult with counsel regarding the possibility of using a savings clause stating that the severance agreement, and specifically the nondisparagement clause, are not intended to prevent the employee from engaging in protected activity under the NLRA.