NLRB v. Long Island Ass'n for AIDS Care, Inc., No. 16-2325 (2d Cir. 2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

LIAAC petitioned for review of the Board's order determining that LIAAC violated Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 29 U.S.C. 158(a)(1), by promulgating an unlawful confidentiality agreement and by terminating an employee for his refusal to sign the unlawful confidentiality agreement. The Second Circuit enforced the order and held that an employer violates section 8(a)(1) when it terminates an employee for refusing to sign an unlawful employment document. The court disposed of the remaining issues on appeal in a summary order.

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16-2325-ag(L) NLRB v. Long Island Ass’n for AIDS Care, Inc. 28 16 2325 ag(L) NLRB v. Long Island Ass’n for AIDS Care, Inc. UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT ____________________ August Term, 2017 (Argued: August 21, 2017 Decided: August 31, 2017) Docket Nos. 16 2325 ag(L), 16 2782 ag(XAP) ____________________ NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD, Petitioner Cross Respondent, v. LONG ISLAND ASSOCIATION FOR AIDS CARE, INC., Respondent Cross Petitioner. ____________________ Before: NEWMAN, LEVAL, and POOLER, Circuit Judges. Before the Court is the July 1, 2016 application of Petitioner Cross 29 Respondent National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) to enforce, and the 30 August 10, 2016 cross petition of Respondent Cross Petitioner Long Island 31 Association for AIDS Care, Inc. (“LIAAC”) to review, the NLRB’s June 14, 2016 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 1 Decision and Order determining that LIAAC violated Section 8(a)(1) of the 2 National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1), by promulgating an unlawful 3 confidentiality agreement and by terminating an employee for his refusal to sign 4 the unlawful confidentiality agreement. Because an employer violates Section 5 8(a)(1) when it terminates an employee for refusing to sign an unlawful 6 employment document, we enforce the order of the NLRB and deny the cross 7 petition for review. 8 9 this day. 10 DAVID R. EHRLICH, Stagg, Terenzi, Confusione & Wabnik, LLP (Debra L. Wabnik, on the brief), Garden City, NY. for Respondent Cross Petitioner Long Island Association for AIDS Care, Inc. 12 13 14 15 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 Affirmed. ____________________ 11 16 The remaining issues on appeal are disposed of in a summary order filed RUTH E. BURDICK, Deputy Assistant General Counsel, National Labor Relations Board (Julie Broido, Supervisory Attorney, Kyle A. deCant, Attorney, Richard F. Griffin, Jr., General Counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, Deputy General Counsel, John H. Ferguson, Associate General Counsel, Linda Dreeben, Deputy Associate General Counsel, on the brief), Washington, 2 D.C., for Petitioner Cross Respondent National Labor Relations Board. 1 2 4 PER CURIAM: 5 6 Respondent National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) to enforce, and the 7 August 10, 2016 cross petition of Respondent Cross Petitioner Long Island 8 Association for AIDS Care, Inc. (“LIAAC”) to review, the NLRB’s June 14, 2016 9 Decision and Order determining that LIAAC violated Section 8(a)(1) of the 3 Before the Court is the July 1, 2016 application of Petitioner Cross 10 National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), 29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1), by promulgating 11 an unlawful confidentiality agreement and by terminating an employee for his 12 refusal to sign the unlawful confidentiality agreement. Because an employer 13 violates Section 8(a)(1) when it terminates an employee for refusing to sign an 14 unlawful employment document, we enforce the order of the NLRB and deny 15 the cross petition for review. 16 17 this day. The remaining issues on appeal are disposed of in a summary order filed 3 BACKGROUND 1 2 3 I. Factual Background LIAAC is a not for profit, non union organization that provides services 4 for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment at its facility in Hauppauge, New York. 5 LIAAC hired Marcus Acosta in February 2014 to work as part of a mobile 6 outreach team conducting surveys about substance abuse and mental health. A 7 few months after he was hired, Acosta became a prevention specialist on the 8 mobile outreach team focusing on populations with a high risk of contracting 9 HIV/AIDS. 10 When Acosta was hired, LIAAC had him read and sign a Confidentiality 11 Statement, as it did with all of its employees. The Confidentiality Statement 12 comprised primarily four operative paragraphs and a remedy paragraph. The 13 first two paragraphs required employees of LIAAC to maintain the 14 confidentiality of information protected by the Health Insurance Portability and 15 Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) and by a New York law regarding HIV testing. 16 The third paragraph “strictly prohibited” employees from disclosing information 17 with respect to all “non public information intended for internal purposes” of 18 LIAAC, including “administrative information such as salaries [and the] contents 4 1 of employment contracts.” App’x at 125. The fourth paragraph prohibited 2 employees from being “interviewed by any media source, or answer[ing] any 3 questions from any media source regarding their employment at LIAAC” or “the 4 workings and conditions of LIAAC” without permission from LIAAC. App’x at 5 125. The final paragraph instructed employees that “any breach of confidentiality 6 will result in disciplinary action up to and including suspension or termination 7 of employment and criminal prosecution.” App’x at 125. 8 9 During 2014, Acosta struggled with time management and documentation of his activities. As a response to his difficulties, Acosta was provided with a 10 time log in order to help him manage his time better. Acosta did not appreciate 11 having to fill in the time log and testified that he entered the ingredients of his 12 lunch into his time log at one point “80 percent to help [him]self” with an eating 13 disorder and “20 percent” to be “snippy with [his] supervisor.” App’x at 46 47. 14 In November 2014, Acosta read a Newsday article which reported that 15 Gail Barouh, the CEO of LIAAC, had misappropriated public funds. Specifically, 16 the article reported that an investigation had concluded that Barouh had 17 misappropriated cost of living adjustment (“COLA”) benefits intended for 18 LIAAC employees. The day the article was published, Acosta received a letter 5 1 from Barouh at his desk which “explained what happened and said that LIAAC 2 ha[d] resolved all the issues and we’re going to be moving forward.” App’x at 13. 3 Along with the letter, Acosta also received a fundraising packet from LIAAC. 4 According to Acosta, the other employees at LIAAC were upset about the 5 article because many people told him that they had worked for years without 6 raises. As a result, Acosta asked his supervisors and the Director of Human 7 Resources, Robert Nicoletti, how wages and raises worked at LIAAC and how 8 COLA funds were used at LIAAC. Nicoletti instructed Acosta to “just focus on 9 [his] work and nothing else.” App’x at 21. Acosta testified that he decided to do 10 11 just that. In February 2015, Acosta’s head supervisor, Michele Keogh, wrote in a 12 Supervision Meeting Summary that Acosta had been insubordinate and negative. 13 Specifically, Keogh recounted that Acosta had been tasked with giving a 14 presentation, which Acosta refused to do and announced at a team meeting that 15 “he did not get paid enough to fulfill this task.” App’x at 129. Keogh identified 16 this as insubordination. Keogh also wrote that Acosta was being negative based 17 on his informing her that “other staff members were voicing their dissatisfaction 18 with regards to salary and work environment to him,” but then refusing to 6 1 “disclose names of the individuals who [we]re reporting to him their negative 2 feelings.” App’x at 129. Nonetheless, Keogh also wrote that Acosta “takes pride 3 in his work” notwithstanding his concerns about management, and Acosta wrote 4 on the report that he wants to “focus on the work and developing professionally” 5 in the work that he does as a prevention specialist. App’x at 130 31. 6 In March 2015, LIAAC asked all employees to sign its Confidentiality 7 Statement again. Acosta signed, but indicated that he did so under duress and 8 identified certain portions of the Confidentiality Statement with which he 9 disagreed, specifically the third paragraph’s prohibition on discussing wages and 10 11 the fourth paragraph’s prohibition on talking to the media. On March 20, 2015, Acosta met with his direct supervisor, Sophia Noel, 12 and requested a raise. Acosta explained that he had spoken to other employees 13 who had told him they received raises, and so he felt he could ask for a raise 14 based on his year of working at LIAAC. Noel laughed when he asked for a raise, 15 but she told him that he had made great improvements in time management and 16 that she would let Keogh know about his request. 7 1 On March 24, 2015, Acosta met with Noel again. She told him that he had 2 improved and was doing well, and the two of them made plans for future events 3 in which Acosta would participate for LIAAC. 4 Acosta’s meeting with Noel was cut a few seconds short by a co worker 5 who told Acosta to go see Nicoletti for a meeting. Ray Ward, the Chief Program 6 Officer for LIAAC, and another Human Resources employee were also present at 7 the meeting. Nicoletti opened the meeting by telling Acosta that “this is a yes or 8 no conversation, there’s no room for discussion.” App’x at 31 32. Nicoletti then 9 gave Acosta the Confidentiality Statement to sign a second time, and told Acosta 10 to sign it or get fired. Acosta signed the statement, but indicated that he did so 11 “under duress” three times at the bottom of the sheet. App’x at 124. Upon 12 receiving the Confidentiality Statement with Acosta’s notations, Nicoletti 13 informed Acosta that “you just terminated yourself.” App’x at 32. Acosta asked 14 for a copy of the Confidentiality Statement that he signed, but this was denied. 15 Acosta then called the police thinking it might help him get a copy of his signed 16 Confidentiality Statement, but when Nicoletti yelled at Acosta, Acosta told the 17 police there was no emergency and he hung up the phone. Acosta then left 18 LIAAC’s building. 8 II. Procedural Background 1 On March 26, 2015, Acosta filed a charge against LIAAC with the NLRB. In 2 3 his charge, Acosta alleged that LIAAC had “unlawfully prohibited employees 4 from talking about their wages, hours, terms[,] and conditions of employment” 5 and that LIAAC had “discharged [Acosta] because he asserted his Section 7 6 rights and because he engaged in protected concerted activities.” App’x at 123. 7 8 Brooklyn, New York. The ALJ heard testimony from Acosta and from Ward on 9 behalf of LIAAC. On July 27, 2015, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) tried the case in 10 On August 26, 2015, the ALJ issued his decision. The ALJ first held that the 11 Confidentiality Statement was “facially invalid” because “an employer 12 unlawfully intrudes into its employees’ Section 7 rights when it prohibits 13 employees, without justification, from discussing among themselves their wages 14 and other terms and conditions of employment.” App’x at 175. The ALJ then 15 found that Acosta engaged in concerted activity with respect to wages at LIAAC 16 by discussing wages and COLA increases with other employees, and by bringing 17 these concerns to Noel, Keogh, and Nicoletti even though Acosta refused to 18 identify those with whom he had been speaking. The ALJ also found that, even if 9 1 Acosta were not engaged in concerted activity, his comments were protected 2 because the Confidentiality Statement was facially invalid. The ALJ further held 3 that LIAAC had not met its burden in proving that Acosta would have been 4 discharged due to his poor work performance, and thus concluded that LIAAC’s 5 discharge of Acosta violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA. The ALJ therefore 6 required LIAAC to reinstate and compensate Acosta, to remove paragraphs three 7 and four from the Confidentiality Statement, and to post an attached Notice to 8 Employees in its facility. 9 Thereafter, both parties filed exceptions to the ALJ’s decision. On June 14, 10 2016, after considering the parties’ exceptions, the NLRB issued a decision 11 affirming the ALJ’s rulings, findings, and conclusions as modified. The NLRB 12 agreed with the ALJ that LIAAC violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA by 13 “promulgating and maintaining a confidentiality statement that employees 14 would reasonably construe to prohibit them from discussing wages or other 15 terms and conditions of employment with employees or nonemployees and the 16 media.” App’x at 199. The NLRB also agreed with the ALJ that LIAAC violated 17 Section 8(a)(1) by threatening to discharge and then discharging Acosta for 18 refusing to agree to the unlawful confidentiality statement. The NLRB did not 10 1 base its decision on a finding that Acosta engaged in concerted activity. The 2 NLRB also adopted remedial provisions similar to those adopted by the ALJ and 3 required LIAAC to post a Notice to Employees on its premises regarding 4 LIAAC’s employees’ rights under the NLRA. 5 6 the NLRB’s decision were timely filed on July 1, 2016 and August 10, 2016, 7 respectively. The NLRB’s application to enforce and LIAAC’s cross petition to review DISCUSSION 8 9 10 I. Standard of Review “We uphold the NLRB’s findings of fact if supported by substantial 11 evidence and the NLRB’s legal determinations if not arbitrary and capricious.” 12 Cibao Meat Prods., Inc. v. NLRB, 547 F.3d 336, 339 (2d Cir. 2008). “[S]ubstantial 13 evidence is more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a 14 reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” NLRB v. 15 G&T Terminal Packaging Co., Inc., 246 F.3d 103, 114 (2d Cir. 2001). “The 16 substantial evidence standard requires us to review the record in its entirety, 17 including the body of evidence opposed to the [NLRB’s] view.” Id. (internal 18 quotation marks and ellipses omitted). “We may not[, however,] displace the 11 1 [NLRB’s] choice between two fairly conflicting views, even though we would 2 justifiably have made a different choice had the matter been before us de novo.” 3 Id. (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). “Instead, a reversal based 4 upon a factual question will only be warranted if, after looking at the record as a 5 whole, we are left with the impression that no rational trier of fact could reach 6 the conclusion drawn by the” NLRB. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). 7 8 [C]ourt reviews the [NLRB’s] legal conclusions to ensure they have a reasonable 9 basis in law. In so doing, we afford the [NLRB] a degree of legal leeway.” Cibao 10 11 12 “Our review [of the NLRB’s legal conclusions] is [also] deferential: This Meat Prods., 547 F.3d at 339. II. Acosta’s Termination in Violation of Section 8(a)(1) LIAAC appeals the NLRB’s decision with respect to Acosta’s termination 13 primarily because Acosta did not engage in “concerted activity” under Section 7 14 of the NLRA, 29 U.S.C. § 157, and therefore his termination was not in violation 15 of Section 8(a)(1), and, secondarily, because Acosta was terminated because of 16 his poor work performance and not his refusal to sign the Confidentiality 17 Statement. The NLRB, however, affirmed the ALJ’s decision because it 18 determined that Acosta had been terminated based on his refusal to sign the 12 1 Confidentiality Statement and because it held that terminating Acosta for his 2 refusal to sign an unlawful confidentiality agreement violated Section 8(a)(1) 3 independent of any need for concerted activity. Thus, we must first determine 4 whether substantial evidence supports the factual finding that Acosta was 5 terminated for his refusal to sign, and then we must determine whether a 6 concerted activity is legally necessary to find a violation of Section 8(a)(1). 7 We hold that substantial evidence supports the NLRB’s finding that Acosta 8 was terminated because of his refusal to sign the Confidentiality Statement. 9 Acosta’s testimony that Nicoletti told him to “sign [the Confidentiality 10 Statement] or get fired” during the meeting on March 24, 2015 is uncontroverted. 11 App’x at 32. In addition, both Acosta and LIAAC’s own witness testified that 12 Nicoletti told Acosta that he “just terminated his own employment” based on his 13 writing “under duress” on the Confidentiality Statement when he signed it on 14 March 24, 2015. App’x at 32, 88. No evidence has been presented that refutes this 15 statement of events. 16 Further, LIAAC’s counter story that Acosta was fired for his poor 17 performance is not supported by the evidence. Although there is evidence in the 18 record that Acosta had difficulty with time management in 2014, that he was 13 1 considered for termination in November 2014, and that there was an issue with 2 Acosta refusing to do a presentation at work in early 2015, the more recent 3 evidence in the record indicates that Acosta was improving. LIAAC presented no 4 evidence contradicting Acosta’s testimony that Noel told him four days before he 5 was fired that he had made “a big improvement since November.” App’x at 30. 6 LIAAC also did not respond to Acosta’s testimony that, on the day of his firing, 7 he met with Noel in order to discuss future events that Acosta would be 8 participating in at LIAAC, thus suggesting that Noel did not believe Acosta 9 would be fired later that day based on his performance. Indeed, Acosta testified 10 that at that meeting, which was immediately before he was terminated, Noel 11 again told him that he had improved. 12 13 finding that Acosta was terminated because of his refusal to sign the 14 Confidentiality Statement. Thus, we must next determine whether the NLRB was 15 correct as a legal matter that LIAAC violated Section 8(a)(1) when it terminated 16 Acosta for his refusal to sign an unlawful confidentiality agreement without 17 requiring proof of concerted activity. Accordingly, we hold that substantial evidence supports the NLRB’s 14 1 “The [NLRB] has long adhered to and applied the principle that discipline 2 imposed pursuant to an unlawfully overbroad rule is unlawful.” The Cont’l Grp., 3 Inc., 357 N.L.R.B. 409, 410 (2011). This is called the Double Eagle rule after Double 4 Eagle Hotel & Casino, 341 N.L.R.B. 112 (2004). See The Cont’l Grp., Inc., 357 N.L.R.B. 5 at 410. One of the central concerns animating the Double Eagle rule is that “the 6 mere maintenance of an overbroad rule tends to inhibit employees who are 7 considering engaging in legally protected activities by convincing them to refrain 8 from doing so rather than risk discipline.” Id. at 411. Thus, “[a]n employer is not 9 free to evade liability through the device of utilizing a rule prohibiting activity 10 protected by Section 7 of the [NLRA] and by then basing its discipline on the fact 11 that the employee has violated the rule, thereby being insubordinate.” Kolkka 12 Tables & Finnish Am. Saunas, 335 N.L.R.B. 844, 849 (2001). In other words, “an 13 employer may not discharge an employee for refusing to comply with an 14 unlawful order prohibiting protected activity.” Quantum Elec., Inc., 341 N.L.R.B. 15 1270, 1280 81 (2004). The rule that has emerged, therefore, is “that an employer 16 may not take coercive action against an employee . . . for refusing to comply with 17 a policy that . . . itself deters protected activity” in violation of Section 8(a)(1). 18 NLRB v. Air Contact Transp. Inc., 403 F.3d 206, 214 (4th Cir. 2005). This rule holds 15 1 true for employee refusals to sign unlawful documents as a condition of 2 employment, including, for example, unlawful arbitration agreements. See 3 Everglades College, Inc., 363 N.L.R.B. No. 73, at *1, *3 (2015). 4 We hold that the NLRB was correct in deciding that an employer violates 5 Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, 29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1), when an employer terminates 6 an employee for refusing to agree to an unlawful confidentiality agreement. An 7 employer may not require even one individual employee to agree to abide by 8 unlawful restrictions as a condition of employment. That the employees have not 9 yet organized in order to protest the unlawful nature of the restriction at issue 10 does not make it any less unlawful. The contrary rule urged by LIAAC, that an 11 employee can be required to comply with an unlawful policy and the employee 12 is only protected from the unlawful policy if he or she actively organizes with 13 other employees against it, is illogical and untenable. An unchallenged unlawful 14 document can cause the chilling effect that Section 8(a)(1) seeks to prevent just as 15 much as one that has been challenged by concerted action. See NLRB v. Vanguard 16 Tours, Inc., 981 F.2d 62, 67 (2d Cir. 1992). We see no reason to judge the effect of 17 an unlawful requirement on an employee’s termination based solely on whether 18 the employee acted in concert or alone. Instead, we judge the effect of the 16 1 requirement on an employee’s termination based on the lawfulness or 2 unlawfulness of the requirement. 3 4 terminated by LIAAC for refusing to sign the unlawful Confidentiality 5 Statement. This was a violation of Section 8(a)(1). Accordingly, finding neither 6 legal nor factual error, we affirm the decision of the NLRB that Acosta was 7 terminated by LIAAC in violation of Section 8(a)(1) for refusing to sign the 8 unlawful Confidentiality Statement. Here, the Confidentiality Statement was unlawful and Acosta was CONCLUSION 9 10 For the reasons set forth above and in the accompanying summary order, 11 we affirm the judgment of the NLRB. 17