Seyfarth Synopsis: The Second Circuit agrees with the Board that the use of profanity in a Facebook post was not “opprobrious enough” to lose the NLRA’s protections and justify the employer’s termination of the employee.

A server whose “conduct [sat] at the outer bounds of protected, union-related comments” when he posted that his manager is a “nasty mother f***er” and “f*** his mother and his entire f***ing family,” was not “opprobrious enough” to lose the protection of the NLRA, a three-judge panel for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in NLRB v. Pier Sixty, LLC, No. 15-1841 (2nd Cir. Apr. 21, 2017).

Pier Sixty operates a catering company in New York, NY. In early 2011, many of its service employees began seeking union representation. Following a very contentious union organizing campaign, Pier Sixty employees voted to unionize on October 27, 2011.

Two days before the election, during the work day, a Pier Sixty supervisor gave employee Perez and two other servers instructions, which the Board’s opinion described as “harsh tone,” and included the following instructions: “stop chitchatting” and “spread out, move, move.” Approximately 45 minutes later, Perez, upset by the “continuing disrespect for employees,” wrote the following Facebook post about the supervisor during an authorized break:

Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER F***ER don’t know how to talk to people !!!!!! F*** his mother and his entire f***cking family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!

The post was publicly accessible and Perez knew that his post would be visible to his coworkers. Perez removed the post three days later. Management, however, had already become aware of the post, and after an investigation, the employer terminated Perez on November 9, 2011.

Perez filed an NLRB charge alleging retaliation for engaging in protected concerted activities. On April 18, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Pier Sixty had violated sections 8(a)(1) and 8(a)(3) of the NLRA by discharging Perez in retaliation for his protected activity. Pier Sixty filed exceptions, and a three-member panel of the NLRB affirmed the ALJ’s decision on March 31, 2015. The NLRB filed an application for enforcement, and Pier Sixty filed a cross-petition for review.

The Second Circuit affirmed the NLRB’s determination based on the deference afforded to the ALJ’s factual findings. The Court explained that in light of the General Counsel’s guidance for evaluating employees’ use of social media to post public criticisms of their employers and workplaces, a nine-factor “totality of the circumstances” test in social media cases had emerged. The Court acknowledged that while the test the ALJ applied may not have “adequately balance[d] the employer’s interests, Pier Sixty did not object to the ALJ’s use of the test in evaluating Perez’s statements before the Board.” Accordingly, the Court did not address the validity of the applied test.

Rather, Pier Sixty argued that the Board’s decision that the comments were not so egregious as to exceed the Act’s protection was not supported by “substantial evidence” in the record. The 2nd Circuit disagreed and found:

  • Although the post contained vulgar attacks, the subject matter of the message included workplace concerns.
  • Pier Sixty consistently tolerated widespread profanity amongst its workers, including supervisors, and had never before terminated any employees for such behavior until two days before the union election.
  • The location of the comments was an online mode of communication among coworkers and was not in the immediate presence of coworkers.

Accordingly, the Court found that the Board did not err in ruling that the post, while “vulgar and inappropriate,” was not so egregious as to exceed the NLRA’s protection.

Takeaways for Employers:

  • The Board will not apply the Atlantic Steel test to cases involving social media, even if the posts are public in nature, in light of the fact that the place of discussion is the internet and not face-to-face in the workplace.
  • Companies should ensure policies and handbooks comply with the NLRB’s current guidance on social media and do not interfere with employees engaging in protected concerted activity when off duty. However, while policies prohibiting vulgar and offensive comments need to be sensitive about infringing on NLRA-protected rights, employers should not hesitate to enforce those policies in appropriate circumstances.
  • Employee discipline should not be selectively enforced to prohibit behaviors that relate to union-related activities; discipline should be applied uniformly to all employees.