Seyfarth Synopsis: Administrative Law Judge finds confidentiality work rule unlawful under new standard set forth in The Boeing Company, 365 NLRB No. 154 (2017) (“Boeing”).

Employers had hoped that the Board’s recent decision would reel in decisions concerning employer work rules. And while it did, the recent decision in Lowe’s Home Centers, LLC and Amber Frare, makes clear that there are some work rules that will not pass legal muster.

Just last week, on April 17, 2018, Administrative Law Judge Amita Tracy ruled that Lowe’s confidentiality rules violated the Board’s new rule in Boeing. Judge Tracy focused on the fact that the original and revised versions of Lowe’s confidentiality rules at issue prohibited employees from discussing their wages, and that employees could be subject to discipline if they violated the rules.

The problem with the confidentiality work rule was how it defined confidential information. Specifically, the confidentiality work rule defined salary information as confidential.

Original Confidentiality Work Rule:

Confidential information includes all non-public information that might be of use to competitors of the company, or harmful to Lowe’s, its suppliers or customers, if disclosed. It includes all proprietary information relating to Lowe’s business such as customer, budget, financial, credit, marketing, pricing, supply cost, personnel, medical records and salary information.

Revised Confidentiality Work Rule:

Confidential information includes, but is not limited to:

  • Material, non-public information; and
  • Proprietary information relating to Lowe’s business such as customer, budget, financial, credit, marketing, pricing, supply cost, personnel, medical records or salary information, and future plans and strategy.

Judge Tracy discussed the three Categories outlined in Boeing, and found that Lowe’s rules fell under Category 3. A Category 3 consists of an unlawful rule where the adverse impact on NLRA rights is not outweighed by justifications associated with the rule. Judge Tracy made note that the Board’s example of a Category 3 was a policy prohibiting employees from discussing wages or benefits with one another. Judge Tracy also made particular mention that the rule notified employees that disciplinary action could ensue if employees violated either versions of the confidentiality work rules.

Because the confidentiality rules prohibited employees from discussing salary information, Judge Tracy found that, per Boeing, this was a “per se unlawful [policy] bypassing the need to conduct a balancing test.”

Judge Tracy, nevertheless, engaged in a balancing test of weighing Lowe’s business interests against the charging party’s NLRA rights. Lowe’s asserted the following business justifications for its confidentiality rules: preventing employees from engaging in insider trading; protecting competitively sensitive information; and complying with antitrust laws. Judge Tracy was unpersuaded that Lowe’s justifications outweighed employees’ rights to discuss their wages; and thus, found the confidentiality work rules unlawful.

Although the ALJ decision is not binding, it is a reminder to employers that they should still review their policies to ensure that they will be found lawful even under the more reasonable Boeing test.