Seyfarth synopsis: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that the National Labor Relations Board abused its discretion by ignoring its own precedent and downplaying threats made by pro-union employees during an election campaign where the union ultimately prevailed by a one-vote margin.

Should union supporters’ casual, half-hearted “threats” of violence during an election campaign warrant overturning the results in a closely contested election? Contrary to the NLRB, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals answered that, under the Board’s own precedent, “probably.”

The case, ManorCare of Kingston PA LLC v. National Labor Relations Board, 14-1166 (D.C. Cir. 2016) stems from a 2013 election among nurses’ aides at the employer’s Pennsylvania facility. The union ultimately eked out a victory by a margin of 34-32.

The employer challenged the results, alleging that two bargaining unit nurses during the campaign threatened to “punch people in the face,” “beat people up and destroy their cars” and “slash their tires” if the union did not prevail. Although the nurses initially made these comments in a “somewhat joking manner,” the statements were disseminated to eight or nine other unit employees, some of whom believed the threats to be more serious, causing ManorCare to provide additional security for three days following the election.

The Board, purporting to apply its six-factor Westwood Hotel test for evaluating third-party threats during a campaign, and found the threats not sufficiently serious to overturn the election. Without applying its test to the facts, the Board emphasized the “casual and joking nature” of the original comments and dismissed the remarks as “no more than bravado and bluster.” Given that the statements were disseminated to other employees out of context, the Board claimed that a “game of telephone” should never be the basis for overturning an election.

The D.C. Circuit disagreed, finding that the Board abused its discretion by only cursorily acknowledging its own precedent and failing to discuss how the facts aligned with Board law. The Court noted that the Board has drawn a “firm line” that an election cannot stand where threats create a “general atmosphere of fear and reprisal” that render a free election impossible. The Court noted that the objective standard required by the Board’s precedent “requires assessing the threats according to what they reasonably conveyed, not what the speakers intended to convey.” Thus, the Court found irrelevant that that the comments might have originated as jokes, noting that “[t]he remarks were threatening, and seriously so.”

The Court also found that the dissemination of the threats to eight or nine voters weighed against upholding the election results, especially since “only a single voter could have changed the outcome,” a fact the Board failed to acknowledge. The fact that the threats actually instilled fear in co-workers and were made in part by an employee who displayed visible injuries from a recent knife fight only underscored the objectively serious nature of the threats.

Despite the D.C. Circuit handing a victory to the company, employers can expect to see this case cited by unions and the Board when addressing similar “joking” statements by pro-company employees. As always, employers should strive to maintain an atmosphere free of physical threats and intimidation during an election campaign — among managers and staff alike — or run the risk of having a hard fought election victory overturned.