The U.S. Supreme Court today held that the US Senate was not in recess on January 4, 2012, when President Obama made three “recess” appointments to the National Labor Relations Board under the Constitution’s Recess Appointment Clause. In simple terms that means that the recess appointments were not proper and s decisions in which the recess appointees participated were not valid.

What this now means is that hundreds of cases decided by the NLRB following the January 4, 2012 recess appointments to the Board from January 4, 2012 until the Senate confirmed the current Board members who joined the NLRB as of August 12, 2013, were unconstitutionally decided because the Board lacked a quorum and could not decide cases or issue orders. Additionally, while Noel Canning concerned the January 2012 recess appointments, there is also doubt as to earlier decisions in which previous recess appointees participated going back to August 2011.

The Court’s decision upheld the January 2013 decision of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit which found that the panel of the NLRB that had previously decided an unfair labor practice case against Noel Canning, a Pepsi bottler, was unconstitutionally constituted and therefore the decision was invalid. There the DC Circuit held that because the Senate, whose advice and consent is required for appointments to the NLRB had not been in recess when the President made his appointments, the company’s “understanding of the constitutional provision is correct, and the Board’s is wrong. The Board had no quorum, and its order is void.” The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit had also reached a similar conclusion concerning the lack of a quorum due to the Senate not having been in recess when the January 2012 appointments were made.

This decision now casts into doubt and makes suspect more than 1,300 NLRB decisions, including both published and unpublished, issued by the NLRB. An excellent summary of the cases that are implicated by the Court’s decision, and the issues involved in each has been prepared by the US Chamber of Commerce Litigation Center.

The Court’s holding, which found that the Senate was not in recess while it was conducting pro forma sessions during December 2012, arose in the context of a challenge to a Board Order in which recess appointees participated; the implications however are far greater and may implicate a wide range of other Board actions such as the appointment of Regional Directors, the consolidation of Regional offices and other administrative and personnel actions requiring Board approval or authorization. Notably, in a case decided by a District Court in the Eastern District of Washington last August an employer successfully challenged not only the Board’s authority to authorize a Regional Director to pursue an injunction under Section 10 (j) of the National Labor Relations Act, but the appointment of then Acting NLRB General Counsel Lafe Solomon, who was then a recess appointee. That case turned on other provisions of the Pay Act, a federal law authorizing the payment of salary to properly appointed recess appointees.

In a relatively understated press release following the Court’s decision, Board Chair Mark Gaston Pearce emphasized the fact that “the National Labor Relations Board has a full contingent of five Senate-confirmed members who are prepared to fulfill our responsibility to enforce the National Labor Relations Act.”

What this means to Employers, Unions and Others With Cases Before the NLRB

If the Board’s actions following the Supreme Court’s decision concerning an earlier attempt by the NLRB to delegate its decision making authority to a two member panel in the face of earlier disputes between the President and the Senate is any precedent, it is likely that at least three members of the current five member Senate confirmed Board will try to essentially adopt and approve as many as possible of the Board Orders and actions that would be invalid under Noel Canning. As shown in the Chamber’s chart, there are a large number of cases that are essentially on hold in Courts of Appeal across the country that have been waiting for the Court’s ruling today. It is likely that the courts will dismiss these matters or that the NLRB will seek to withdraw those in which it is seeking enforcement of Board Orders.

However, as we and others have pointed out since the issue of the 2012 and earlier recess appointments were placed in doubt, employers and others with matters before the Board, the most prudent course of action would have been to make sure that in addition to any other defenses or grounds for appeal, that parties specifically raise the issue that the Board lacked a quorum and the authority to act when it made decisions, issued orders and took other action. However even in those cases that were decided by the Board during the period that it lacked a proper quorum, parties may be able to raise the lack of quorum argument in light of today’s decision. Each matter will require an analysis based on its own individual facts and issues.

Additionally, today’s ruling has broad impact even in cases which are currently being investigated at the Regional level or are currently pending before the Board. Not only can we expect even further delay in Board action (including at the Regional level) as the agency attempts to deal with the backlog created by having to address hundreds cases directly impacted by the Decision. Specifically, there are thousands of cases which are currently being prosecuted or advanced at various stages which explicitly or tangentially rely on theories or precedents relying on a now invalid Board decision. Specifically, cases involving at-will employment agreements, arbitration agreements, employee investigations, employee access, dues deductions post-contract expiration, and bargaining over employee discipline have all now been stripped of much of the precedence on which a Region, a union or an employee may be relying. Again each matter will require an analysis based on its own individual facts and issues.

Management Missives

  • If the “invalid” Board issued a decision impacting an employer it should promptly analyze its options;
  • If an employer has a case in abeyance or pending based on Noel Canning it should obviously expect action in the coming weeks;
  • Employers should look for settlement opportunities with Regions, unions and individuals which may be present as these adverse parties may be more amendable to now that the theory of the case now lacks valid authority or based on their increased workloads;
  • Employers should explore filing supplemental position statements or other filings in any case where a Region, union or employee is relying on an “invalid” decision;
  • Employers should still remain cautious as while many decisions have been put into question, the current composition of the Board provides absolutely no reason for employers to rejoice or be less vigilant, as the current, lawfully confirmed, Board is unlikely to view most issues any differently.