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PAC TELL GROUP, INC. v. NLRB, No. 15-1111

Decided: December 23, 2015

The Fourth Circuit denied the Respondent’s motion to review and affirmed the Petitioner’s motion for cross-application of the National Labor Relations Board’s order.

In this appeal, the Fourth Circuit considered the National Labor Relations Board’s (the Board) determination that four individual employees of U.S. Fibers (the employer), who were engaged in pro-union activity before a union election within the company, were not supervisors within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act (the Act). The Court held that the Board’s decision was supported by substantial evidence, upheld the Board’s conclusion that setting aside the results of the election was not appropriate under the circumstances of the case, denied U.S. Fibers’ petition for review of the Board’s final order, and granted the Board’s cross-application for enforcement of its order.

At issue in this case was the question of whether four U.S. Fibers employees occupied supervisory status in their roles with Respondent, U.S. Fiber. If the employees were deemed to have held supervisory positions as it is defined in the Act, then their participation in the union election would have been grounds for setting aside the results of the election. Although the employees at issue were designated by management as “supervisors,” the Board held that the putative supervisors did not exercise supervisory roles that barred them from participation in the union activities and rejected the employer’s alternative contention that the results of the election should be set aside under the Board’s standard for third-party objectionable conduct.

Following the election and despite the Board’s order, the employer refused to recognize or engage in collective bargaining with the union. In the employer’s view, the results of the election should be set aside due to the employees’ supervisory roles within the company. As a result, the Board filed a complaint against the employer, alleging that the employer had engaged in unfair labor practices under federal law and ultimately ordered the employer to cease and desist its unfair practices and to recognize the bargain with the union, as set forth in the Board’s final order. The employer subsequently filed a petition for review.

In reviewing the Board’s order, the Fourth Circuit outlined its standard of review that allowed for the Board’s order to be set aside only if the Board had “clearly abused its discretion” and made clear that it would defer to the Board’s factual determinations, absent substantial abuse, even if the Fourth Circuit may have reached a different result in the first instance. Furthermore, the Court made clear that the burden of proving supervisory status of the employees under the Act rested on the employer.

In opposition to the Board’s order, the employer relied on four supervisory functions enumerated in the Act that disqualified them from participating in union activities; that is, exercising the authority to assign, reward, discipline, and responsibly direct employees. However, despite the employees in this case possessing some level of each of these enumerated functions, the Act makes clear that putative supervisors’ “exercise of such authority [cannot be of] a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment and their authority must be held in the interest of the employer.” For these reasons, the Court dismissed, in turn, each of the employer’s claims for the supervisory nature of the employees’ employment. The Court upheld the Board’s determination that the employees were not exercising their own independent judgments and were acting instead in the interest of the employer or under the employer’s strict instructions.

Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit dismissed the employer’s alternative claim that the election still should be set aside under the standard for objectionable conduct by third-party employees set out under the Act. While the employer contended that the employees in question threatened other employees to the extent of being so “aggravated as to create a general atmosphere of fear and reprisal rendering a free election impossible,” which would have clearly violated the Act, the Court found no evidence to support this contention. Instead, the Court agreed with the Board’s determination that the employees’ challenged statements concerning the potential for employer layoffs did not “meet the rigorous standard for objectionable third-party conduct” as described in the Act.

Accordingly, U.S. Fibers’ contentions were dismissed and the Board’s motion for the application of its orders were affirmed.

Full Opinion

Brandon Gregg