Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Why we put plaintiffs to their proof

Because of the relative newness of the issue, it always seems newsworthy when the NLRB issues a social-media decision. World Color (USA) Corp. (NLRB 2/12/14), however, is much ado about nothing, but nevertheless reminds us of the importance of the process of litigation to the outcome of litigation.

John Vollene, a press room operator at World Color and member of his union’s bargaining committee, made several posts on his personal Facebook page critical of his employer. Vollene was Facebook friends with several co-workers, including his shift supervisor, Arvil Bingham. Shortly after Vollene’s posts, World Color’s employees voted to decertify the union. Shortly thereafter, the company reassigned Vollene as part of a restructuring of its pressroom operators. When Vollene asked Bingham why he was being reassigned, Bingham implied that management knew about his Facebook posts.

The NLRB concluded that Vollene had not proven that he had not been reassigned in retaliation for his Facebook posts, which could have constituted protected concerted activity:

However, the record here does not include a printout of Vollene’s posts, and it provides scant evidence regarding their nature. It reveals neither that the posts concerned terms and conditions of employment, nor that the posts were intended for, or in response to, Vollene’s coworkers. The testimony indicates only that Vollene posted unspecified criticisms of the Respondent and unspecified comments about the Union over a period of 5 or 6 months, and that he responded to another person’s initial post. The record does not identify that individual either by name or as a coworker. Based on this limited evidence, we will not infer that Vollene’s posts amounted to protected concerted activity. That Bingham’s statement implied that the Respondent had reacted adversely to critical posts is insufficient to bridge the evidentiary gap here.

Do not read too much into this decision. An employee’s Facebook posts critical of his or her employer can constitute concerted activity protected by section 7 of the NLRA. In this case, however, the NLRB concluded that because there was no evidence presented of the specific posts at-issue, or how Vollene’s co-workers responded to them. Thus, Vollene had not proven his case.

I have little doubt that if Vollene had put on evidence of the specific posts, and his co-workers reaction to them, this case could have turned out differently. This case serves as a good reminder of why we, as employers and their lawyers, put plaintiffs to their proof. A lawsuit is merely a collection of unproven facts. No law has been violated until a plaintiff  proves those facts through evidence. If the plaintiff doesn’t have the evidence to support the alleged facts, the plaintiff loses. That’s what happened here, which illustrates the importance of the litigation process to the outcome of cases.