Legal News

NLRB Protects Employee’s Profane Outburst

Gone are the days when an employer can fire without impunity an employee who unleashes a barrage of profanity against a supervisor. In Plaza Auto Center, Inc. and Nick Aguirre, 360 NLRB No. 117 (2014), on remand from the Ninth Circuit, the NLRB held for the second time that an employer violated the National Labor Relations Act by terminating an employee who engaged in a profane and insubordinate outburst. The Board required the employer to reinstate the employee with back pay and benefits.

In Plaza Auto Center, the employee discussed the company’s various policies including compensation practices with other employees. The employee complained to a manager about pay practices which led to a closed-door meeting between the owner and the employee. During the meeting, the owner told the employee he needed to follow the company policies and procedures, he should stop complaining about his pay, and he did not need to work for the employer if he did not trust them. The employee’s response included yelling at the owner, calling him a “f**king mother f**ker,” a “f**king crook,” and an “a**hole.” The employee continued his tirade telling the owner he “was stupid, nobody liked him, and everyone talked about him behind his back.” The employee also stood in the small office, pushed his chair aside, and warned the owner that if the owner fired him, the owner would regret it. The owner did not intend to fire the employee going into the meeting, but in light of the inappropriate language during the meeting, the owner changed his mind.

The Board initially found the employee’s conduct was not egregious enough to lose protection of the NLRA, under the following factors from Atlantic Steel Co., 245 NLRB 814 (1979): (1) the place of the discussion; (2) the subject matter of the discussion; (3) the nature of the employee’s outburst; and (4) whether the outburst was, in any way, provoked by the employer’s unfair labor practices. The Board concluded that all four Atlantic Steel factors weighed in favor of protection, therefore finding the employer violated the Act by firing the employee. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit remanded the case because it found the Board erred in its assessment that the nature of the outburst weighed in favor of protection. On remand, although the Board agreed with the Ninth Circuit’s finding, the Board still concluded that the other three Atlantic Steel factors weighed in the employee’s favor, because: (1) the outburst occurred in a closed-door meeting in a manager’s office away from the workplace; (2) the discussion concerned the employee’s protected conduct; and (3) the outburst was provoked because it would not have occurred but for the employer’s unfair labor practice of inviting the employee to quit if he did not like the employer’s policies.

Additionally, despite the employee’s outrageous outburst, the Board concluded that the employee did not engage in menacing, physically aggressive, or belligerent conduct, because he made no specific threats of physical harm, had no history of committing or threatening violent acts during his employment, and he did not hit, touch, or attempt to hit or touch the owner. In doing so, the Board applied an objective standard and disregarded the owner’s testimony that he feared for his personal safety and for the safety of other employees. Instead, the Board concluded that the employee’s “you will regret it” statement was a threat of legal consequences and not of physical harm.

As the dissenting opinion in Plaza Auto Center noted, the Board’s standard permits employees “to curse, denigrate, and defy their managers with impunity during the course of otherwise protected activity, provided they do so in front of a relatively small audience, can point to some provocation, and do not make overt physical threats.” Employers should proceed with caution before issuing discipline and determine if the outrageous behavior qualifies for protection under the NLRA.

******************************
G. Mark Jodon, the office managing shareholder of Littler Mendelson’s Houston office, is board-certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Mark frequently defends employers against unfair labor practice charges before the NLRB. He can be reached at (713) 652-4739 and mjodon@littler.com.

2 Comments

  1. Dale Dirkes
    August 3, 2014 at 8:38 pm — Reply

    It’s really a shame. Shame on the NLRA. Their sentiments always seem to lean towards the employee regardless of the outrageous behavior displayed. Are they saying that employees don’t have to follow a company’s policies and procedures or maintain reasonable comportment if a supervisor doesn’t use legal-speak acceptable to the NRLA? Texas is an “At Will” state, is it not? The supervisor seemed to reflect that concept, didn’t he? Does this mean a company can’t have a rule against Gross Insubordination?

    I have been interviewed by the state in a termination dispute and was initially surprised at the obvious hostile attitude inflicted on me by the state representative. he seemed quite dismayed that my company had adhered exactly to company policies and procedures, that we had executed 3 prior warnings that were specific and set expectations for improvement and future behavior. She kept trying to poke holes in our documentation, including our Employee Handbook, but could not successfully do so. She didn’t ask the former employee to do anything but provide his side of the story – no prodding or poking there. But in the end the company prevailed, but only because we were precise in our procedures and documentation.

    The employer deserves Fair & Balanced too.

  2. Mitchell
    July 30, 2014 at 9:33 am — Reply

    Welcome to the Unisted States of France. The downward spiral continues.
    And yet people wonder why productivity and performance are at a 20 year low. Lack of accountability and responsibility for one’s actions.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Thanks for helping us keep this blog spam free! Please complete the following equation before submitting comment: * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>