Back in December 2007, we wrote about the NLRB’s decision in The Guard Publishing Company, d/b/a The Register-Guard, 351 NLRB No. 70, which held that employees do not have a protected right to use employer email systems for solicitations or communications regarding union-related topics. In addition, the Board applied a new standard for determining when employers discriminatorily enforce email policies and, thus, violate Section 8(a)(3) of the NLRA. Specifically, as to the 8(a)(3) standard, the Board held that, in determining whether a policy had been discriminatorily enforced against the union, it looked to whether there had been "unequal treatment of equals." Then, the Board upheld Register-Guard’s enforcement of its email policy against an employee who was soliciting support for the union because there was no evidence that the company had permitted solicitation on behalf of other non-union groups (even though it had permitted various other personal uses of the email system, including personal solicitations for sports tickets and the like.)
On July 7, 2009, however, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit refused to uphold the Board’s conclusion as to whether the employer discriminatorily enforced its email policy but did not explicitly overrule the standard announced by the Board in December. (On appeal, the union did not challenge the lawfulness of the email policy itself). In short, the court held that the the company’s discipline of an employee for using the email system to solicit employees to wear green in support of the union and to seek volunteers to help with the union’s entry in a city parade violated 8(a)(3). Calling the distinction between organizational and personal solicitation a "post-hoc invention" that did not actually exist in the company’s email policy, the court found that the company policy prohibiting non-work-related solicitations "made no distinction between solicitations for groups and for individuals." Equally significant, the court noted that the company’s disciplinary warning" did not invoke the organization-versus-individual line drawn by the Board. To the contrary, the company told the employee in question to “refrain from using the Company’s systems for union/personal business.”
Because it is so fact-specific, the court’s decision should not cause employers much concern. In fact, the email policy at issue, which prohibited use of the company’s communications systems “to solicit or proselytize for commercial ventures, religious or political causes, outside organizations, or other non-job-related solicitations,” would seem to be equally applicable to personal solicitations of a non-work nature as it is to organizational solicitations. The good news here is that the court’s decision does not disturb the underlying premise that employers may prohibit union access to its email system so long as it does so in a nondiscriminatory manner.