The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) has reversed the findings of an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who found that an employee who was told he was fired and then almost instantly told by the owner of the company he worked for that he was not fired and continued to work without any loss of compensation or working time had in fact been unlawfully discharged in violation of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or the “Act”). It would seem that if “discharge is the ‘capital punishment’ of employment,” this case presents a rare example, in the Board’s eyes of an out of body after death experience, in which the executioner is held liable for killing someone who is unquestionably still alive.

Complaints About a Supervisor of Non-Union Employees: Concerted Protected Activity

The case involved employees who were neither represented by a union nor seeking to become represented who did paving and related work for a paving contractor that was performing work at the University of Arizona’s Tech Park location. Over time the employees had a number of complaints about what they considered to be rude, demeaning and unprofessional remarks and treatment by the supervisor of their crew. They sought out the owner and met with him to express their concerns and to ask him to reign in or replace the supervisor. Under the Act, this was deemed to be concerted and protected activity concerning their terms and conditions of employment.

The Board Reversed Its Own Administrative Law Judge

In Bates Paving & Sealing, Inc., 364 NLRB No. 46 (2016), ), Chairman Mark Pearce and Member Kent Hirozawa, acting on Exceptions filed on behalf of the Board’s General Counsel reversed the decision of ALJ Amita Baman Tracy who had found, based on her review of the evidence including the credibility of witnesses including employee Juan Marana (“Marana”), that the evidence did not support the General Counsel’s claim that Bates Paving had discharged Marana in a heated meeting between employees and the owner of the company about concerns the employees had expressed about their treatment at the hands of their immediate supervisor, Robert Padilla (“Padilla”) and what the owner told the workers were problems with their work on a recent paving project. Marana claimed that as tempers rose in the meeting, the owner told him he was “f***ing fired,” and that he should leave.   The ALJ found that Marana’s testimony was not credible and was in fact contradicted by the sworn affidavit he provided to the NLRB during the investigation of the unfair labor practice charge. In fact, the ALJ pointed out in her decision that in his affidavit, the owner “told him that he was not fired,” and that Marana’s “responses changed throughout his testimony.”

Marana admitted that after the meeting where he exchanged words with the owner, the owner made it clear to him that he was not fired and that he should work the next day as scheduled. Marana also admitted, as both the ALJ and the Board found, that he did not lose even a single hour’s pay.

The ALJ did not however give the company a clean pass on its actions at this and found that the owner had in fact told Marana to leave and to stop his statements about the supervisor. However while she that the owner’s statements about firing Marana “would tend to restrain or interfere with employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.” Because she concluded that Marana was not discharged, whatever the employer may have said, the employer could not be found to have unlawfully discharged him because he did not lose his job.

Why The Board Disagreed With the ALJ

Although the Board did not expressly overrule the ALJ on the facts, in reality they did just that. While the ALJ found Marana not to be credible, essentially because she concluded that he knew he was not fired and in reality never lost even an hour’s worth of pay, the Board took what can be described as an absolutist view of the facts, and concluded, perhaps in a subconscious channeling of Donald Trump’s trademark line from The Apprentice (“You’re fired!”), that the very act of saying the words constitutes a discharge, the “capital punishment” of employment. However it seems that at most what the employer here did was threaten to invoke the industrial death penalty, and not the act of execution.

The Board tried to justify its overriding of the ALJ’s credibility determination, i.e. her finding that Marana did not really believe he was actually fired, by focusing not on what he thought but on what message the other employees who were present in the meeting or heard of it later would take away. In this regard the majority wrote

An employer cannot avoid Board sanction simply by reversing the discharge before an employee suffers financial costs. The message has been sent that the employer is willing to take this extreme action and the employee victim is likely to understand that a “change of heart” may not come so quickly, if at all, if he again engages in protected concerted activity.

What Does This Mean For Employers

There are a number of important takeaways in the Board’s decision in Bates Paving & Sealing. They include not only a reminder that the Act applies and employees are protected in a wide range of circumstances where there is neither union representation in the picture nor any suggestion that employees may be seeking to bargain or to designate a union to bargain on their behalf.

The decision clearly demonstrates that the Board is continuing to aggressively apply the concept of protected concerted activity. It also delivers the message that the adage “No Harm, No Foul,” does not apply in labor law. Innocent or momentary lapses in judgment are likely not to be excused even where an employer quickly undoes any potential harm, if the matter gets to the Board’s attention.