Seyfarth Synopsis: Employer must reinstate four employees after it terminated the employees for agreeing with a former coworker’s email that complained about their terms and conditions of employment.

Recently, a National Labor Relations Board Administrative Law Judge ruled that a restaurant unlawfully reprimanded and discharged several employees in violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act. Mexican Radio Corp., Case No. 02-CA-168989 (April 26, 2017).

A series of disagreements between a new manager and several of the restaurant’s employees led to several employees reaching out to management to complain about the new manager and to one employee quitting her employment. After resigning, the employee sent management and several of her former coworkers a lengthy email that management described as “hurtful and mean spirited.” The email went through the reasons why she had worked at the restaurant, why she had loved working with her coworkers, and how the new manager had changed that. She complained about how the new manager treated them, how several coworkers had complained to other managers, who according to her, did nothing, and she alleged that the new manager was engaging in unlawful conduct. Four employees replied to the email in agreement with the sender and thanked her for sending the email.

Management, who also received the coworkers’ replies, viewed the replies as “deeply insubordinate.” As a result, management decided to meet with the four coworkers to ask them on an individual basis why they had supported their former coworker and agreed with the contents of the email. All four were discharged for, among other things, allegedly engaging in insubordination and agreeing with an email that contained “false accusations of management” and had used “inappropriate language,” including profanity.

The ALJ found that the restaurant unlawfully discharged the four employees for replying to the former coworkers’ email. The ALJ found that the employees’ conduct had been protected, concerted activity. The ALJ noted that these four employees had complained to management about the new manager and about their working conditions and that their replies to the email was an extension of this protected, concerted activity. The email itself also addressed their working conditions, and thus, responding to it was also protected, concerted activity.

The restaurant tried to argue that the email was “opprobrious conduct,” and therefore, lost the protections of the Act. The ALJ disagreed, finding:

  • The four employees did not add anything negative to the original email;
  • The email was a part of an ongoing dialogue between the restaurant and the workers;
  • The email contained little profanity and did not constitute insubordination, but rather, was “a critique of the management style” of the restaurant;
  • The email was distributed internally and did not cause a loss of reputation or business for the restaurant; and
  • The email did not cause a disruption of the business.

The ALJ ordered the restaurant to reinstate the four employees to their former positions, to make them whole for their lost earnings, to pay them for their job-search and interim employment expenses, to remove any reprimands from their files, and to post at the restaurant a standard NLRB notice.

The takeaway for employers: Employers must be careful when confronted by employees’ criticisms, complaints, and allegations, whether in person, by email, or by posting on social media platforms. While some “complaints” might not be protected by law and/or might constitute insubordination, an employer should discuss the particulars with an attorney before determining whether the conduct warrants discipline or termination. Some “complaints,” even when profanity is used and even when they are hurtful to the reader, are protected under the NLRA or other laws, and adverse conduct taken against the employees will be found to be unlawful.