Seyfarth Synopsis: In another signal that the Board may overturn the Obama Board’s decision in Purple Communications allowing employees to use their employer’s email systems to communicate about wages, hours, working conditions and union issues, the Board recently published a letter reiterating its decision to reconsider Purple Communications and invited comment from the public on the standard the Board should apply in these cases.
Under Purple Communications, 361 NLRB 1050 (2014), employees who have access to their employer’s email system for work-related purposes have a presumptive right to use that system for Section 7 protected communications regarding wages, hours, working conditions and union issues on nonworking time. Purple Communications overturned the Board’s decision in Register Guard, 351 NLRB 1110 (2007), holding that employers may lawfully impose neutral restrictions on employees’ non-work-related uses of their email systems, even if those restrictions have the effect of limiting the use of those systems for communications regarding union or other protected concerted activity.
In December 2017, the newly appointed NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb issued a memo containing a broad overview of his initial agenda as General Counsel. The memo cited Purple Communications as one of the cases the GC “might want to provide the Board with alternative analysis.” We previously blogged about the GC’s memo on this issue here.
Less than one year later, in August 2018, the Board announced, and Seyfarth blogged about it here, that it would invite briefing on whether it should “adhere to, modify, or overrule Purple Communications.” The Board made this announcement in Caesars Entertainment Corporation d/b/a Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino, a pending case before the board that directly applied Purple Communications. In Caesars Entertainment Corporation d/b/a Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino, the Administrative Law Judge had found that the employer’s policy prohibiting the use of its email systems to send non-business communications violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA under Purple Communications. The employer excepted to the decision and asked the Board to overrule Purple Communications. Rather than immediately issue a decision, the Board invited the public to comment on this issue.
After extending the deadline to file briefs until October 5, 2018, nineteen amicus briefs were filed from various unions, senators, and interested groups on both sides of the issues. Notably, the GC submitted a brief urging the Board to overrule Purple Communications and return to the holding of Register Guard. The GC further urged that exceptions should be made on a case-by-case basis where the Board determines that employees are unable to communicate in any way other than through the employer’s email system. Finally, the GC argued that Register Guard should apply to other employer-owned computer resources not made available by the employer to the public.
And while five Democrat Senators recently sent a letter to NLRB Chairman John Ring expressing concern over the Board’s invitation to file briefing on the Purple Communications standard, Chairman Ring’s response letter reaffirmed the Board’s decision to reconsider Purple Communications and stated “the Board requested briefing from all interested parties to ensure we are fully informed of the arguments on all sides.”
Although the Board has yet to issue its decision, the Board’s and GC’s actions appear to signal that employers may continue to have hope about winning this battle.