On December 28, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (D.C. Circuit), in a 2-1 decision (Browning-Ferris Indus. of Cal. v. NLRB, No. 16-1028), invalidated the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB or Board) controversial joint employer test adopted in Browning-Ferris, 362 NLRB No. 186 (2015) (Browning-Ferris). The Court remanded the case back to the Board for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.
Joint employer status potentially can exist under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) — and other employment laws — in a variety of circumstances including labor user-supplier, parent-subsidiary, contractor-subcontractor, franchisor-franchisee, predecessor-successor, creditor-debtor, and contractor-consumer relationships.
The Board’s joint employer doctrine is significant because a unionized joint employer has or shares an obligation to collectively bargain over those employment terms it controls or jointly controls. Similarly, a union or non-union joint employer may be found to have committed unfair labor practices within the scope of its control over the workplace. Additionally, under the NLRA, a union can engage in certain forms of picketing, secondary boycotts, or other economic protest activity against an entity determined to be a joint employer instead of a neutral third party.
In Browning-Ferris, the Board majority (3-2) held that even when two entities never have exercised joint control over essential employment terms, and even when any such joint control is not “direct and immediate,” they still will be joint employers based on the existence of unexercised “reserved” joint control or “indirect” control, including control that is “limited and routine.”
In reviewing Browning-Ferris, the D.C. Circuit majority (i.e., Judges Patricia Millett and Robert Wilkins) held that the NLRB “can” consider indirect control and unexercised reserved control as joint employer factors; and, if so, has flexibility in determining what weight to give those factors. As a result, a future Democratic NLRB will have the ability to recognize at least some concepts of indirect and/or reserved control as relevant to joint employer analysis. However, in invalidating the Browning-Ferris formulation, the Court found that the Board’s current test failed to adequately distinguish between indirect control over employment terms and influence or control over “routine” matters related to the formation and maintenance of contractor arrangements. The D.C. Circuit identified cost-plus billing, cost containment measures, providing an “advance description of tasks,” setting basic parameters of performance, and developing contractor “objectives” and “expectations” as examples of actions which — although they may indirectly control or influence a putative contractor’s employees — are not pertinent to a joint employer assessment. The Court sent the case back to the Board to “erect some legal scaffolding that keeps the inquiry within traditional common law bounds.”
The D.C. Circuit also concluded that a remand to the Board was required because the Browning-Ferris decision did not delineate what constitutes “meaningful” collective bargaining — either in general, or with respect to Browning-Ferris’ particular circumstances. In other words, the Court found that the NLRB had not sufficiently explained what employment terms Browning-Ferris co-controlled which made “meaningful” bargaining possible. The Court also appeared to be indicating that the Board needed to address the parameters of any bargaining related to the contours of a joint employer relationship itself, e.g., allocation or reallocation of bargaining obligations between the joint employers.
Although the Court rejected the argument that substantial direct control is the most important factor in any joint employer analysis, the Court found that Browning-Ferris did not present facts as to whether reserved (or indirect) control apart from any actual control alone could result in a joint employer finding. As a result, that question seemingly remains open and unresolved.
In dissent, Judge A. Raymond Randolph criticized the majority for issuing its decision given that the NLRB is presently undertaking joint employer rulemaking. Judge Randolph also considered the majority to have misconstrued the governing common law control concepts.
The D.C, Circuit’s decision will be far from the last word in the joint employer controversy. Apart from the NLRB having been ordered to reformulate the Browning-Ferris test for application to, at least, Browning-Ferris, the Board is engaged in comprehensive joint employer rulemaking which could supersede any test to be developed through case adjudication.
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