Wednesday, July 22, 2015

It shouldn’t be newsworthy when a court applies “common sense” to resolve a dispute

I’d like to think that after 8-plus years of blogging, I’ve banked some capital as one who offers a common-sense approach to the often crazy world of labor and employment law. It’s refreshing to read a judicial opinion that toes the same line.

Southern New England Telephone Co. v. NLRB (D.C. Cir. 7/10/15) is an appeal of an NLRB decision that held that an employer unlawfully disciplined employees for wearing union-created t-shirts that read“Inmate #” and “Prisoner of AT$T”. The court concluded that the employer’s interest in protecting its public image and managing customer relations trumped any arguable section 7 rights enjoyed by the employees in the shirts.
Common sense sometimes matters in resolving legal disputes. This case is a good example. AT&T Connecticut banned employees who interact with customers or work in public — including employees who enter customers’ homes — from wearing union shirts that said “Inmate” on the front and “Prisoner of AT$T” on the back. Seems reasonable. No company, at least one that is interested in keeping its customers, presumably wants its employees walking into people’s homes wearing shirts that say “Inmate” and “Prisoner.” But the NLRB ruled in a 2-1 decision that AT&T committed an unfair labor practice by barring its employees from wearing those shirts. Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act protects the right of employees to wear union apparel at work. But under this Court’s precedent and Board decisions, there is a “special circumstances” exception to that general rule: A company may lawfully prohibit its employees from displaying messages on the job that the company reasonably believes may harm its relationship with its customers or its public image. Put simply, it was reasonable for AT&T to believe that the “Inmate/Prisoner” shirts may harm AT&T’s relationship with its customers or its public image. Therefore, AT&T lawfully prohibited its employees here from wearing the shirt.
Bravo D.C. Circuit. Here’s to more “common sense” approaches to labor and employment disputes.