Supreme Court Hands NLRB A Piping Hot Wake-Up Call

Amostly unanimous U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) request for preliminary injunctive relief...
United States Employment and HR
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Amostly unanimous U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) request for preliminary injunctive relief, while unfair labor practice charges are pending, is to be evaluated by the same standards as any other injunction request. The ruling in Starbucks v. McKinney rejected the position of the NLRB that its requests should be subject to a more deferential standard.

The National Labor Relations Act authorizes the NLRB to seek preliminary injunctive relief in cases for appropriate temporary relief or restraining order. The district court is then authorized to issue such relief it believes is "just and proper."

The Supreme Court has long held that district courts should apply a four-factor test for evaluating injunction requests. That four-factor test requires the moving party to demonstrate: 1) a likelihood of success on the merits, 2) irreparable harm in the absence of the relief sought, 3) a balance of equities in the interest of the moving party, and 4) that the injunction is in the public interest.

The NLRB had argued that its determination that such relief was necessary was entitled to deference by the district court, and that the traditional analysis in evaluating an injunction request, which requires an assessment of the merits of the underlying dispute, would encroach on its primary jurisdiction to adjudicate unfair labor practices.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the Supreme Court in an opinion joined in full by eight justices, rejected these arguments. In part, the court found that the NLRB's position at the preliminary stage of the case in which an injunction is sought is not a decision of the NLRB itself. That position is merely the "convenient litigating position" of the agency and not entitled to deference.

Further, the court held that while a district court must make assessments of the merits of the underlying case as part of its injunction analysis, the NLRB remains free to proceed through its own processes to create a full record of the evidence and factual and legal findings.

Thus, the injunction analysis required of the district courts under the statutes does not displace the NLRB's proper role under the law.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, dissenting in part, agreed with the decision to vacate the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and remand the case, but disagreed about the proper role of the district court in the weighing of the merits of the case. She would have required the district court to have a review of the merits that "should be far less searching than normal." In her view, the NLRB would have been entitled to obtain an injunction so long as it presented some evidence of the unfair labor practice and an arguable legal theory.

The Starbucks decision seemingly means the NLRB will become less likely to seek interim injunctive relief, a remedy that the board has used sparingly, but increasingly in recent years.

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