Had an interesting chat recently with Ron Chapman — Dallas-based labor and employment attorney with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, and outside counsel for D.R. Horton Inc.
Horton, a Fort Worth, Texas-based homebuilder, is appealing the National Labor Relations Board’s January 2012 ruling that its individual-arbitration mandate every employee was required to sign, waiving their rights to class action, violated Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act protecting employees’ rights to take such action to improve their working conditions.
Chapman had argued before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Horton’s behalf on Feb. 5 and said the hearing “went well.” (Here is a link to recordings of all the oral arguments presented in that case that day. Scroll down; you’ll find it. Here, too, is a piece that ran recently in the Dallas Business Journal offering some additional background.) Chapman expects the court to rule within 60 to 90 days.
What was especially interesting, Chapman told me, was the follow-up he received from the court three days after the argument. The court, he said, was directing both sides’ attorneys to draft additional briefs arguing whether they think the constitutionality of the NLRB board make-up at the time of its decision needs to be addressed before a ruling can be made. (As you’ll recall, in its recent decision in Noel Canning v. the National Labor Relations Board, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit invalidated the recess appointments of three members of the NLRB because, the court found, the U.S. Senate was not in recess at the time President Barack Obama made the appointments.)
For reference, here is an HREOnline™ blog post by Web Editor Mike O’Brien about that appeals-court ruling declaring Obama violated the Constitution when he bypassed the Senate to fill the NLRB vacancies. Here, too, is a Q&A O’Brien conducted with Joel S. Barras of Reed Smith on the ramifications and implications of that ruling.
Interestingly, this is the first case I’ve come across in which attorneys for both sides are being asked for their opinions as to whether a ruling can go forward or not without first addressing the constitutionality of the NLRB make-up in question.
Obviously, if Chapman and his counterpart both rule the appeals court’s decision should proceed without any bearing from the Canning case, then it will proceed. But, as Chapman told me, “if we both were to say it should not proceed until the constitutionality issue is addressed, then the board would not decide this case at this time.”
If you consider Barras’ description of such scenarios and multiply them out to all the cases decided by the NLRB with the Obama appointees, it could get messy:
It is important to note that, even if [regional] cases are invalid and the NLRB members lack the authority to take direct action, many of the board’s processes will continue. The various NLRB regions will continue to investigate unfair labor practice charges, issue complaints and try cases. Administrative law judges will continue to issue decisions and find violations of the Act.
The losing party, however, will likely appeal the decision to the board, which will effectively stay the [administrative law judge's] decision. That case will then be left in limbo until a quorum is properly appointed and rules on the decision, which would likely be delayed given the tremendous backlog of cases. In some limited instances, the board’s general counsel may seek injunctive relief in federal court to force a losing party who has appealed the decision to comply with the [administrative law judge’s] order, pending the NLRB’s eventual decision.