Supreme Court Establishes Threshold for Unfair Labor Practice Injunctions

With the rise in unionization across the country, the number of unfair labor practices pertaining to both organization and election are sure to rise.  While the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t often entertain appeals from National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decisions, we should take notice when it does.  In the case of Starbucks Corp. v. McKinney, the Court examined the standard for issuing preliminary injunctions in cases where employers are accused of unfair labor practices.

The facts of the case were quite basic.  Several Starbucks employees announced plans to unionize and invited a local news crew to their store after hours to promote their unionizing effort.  The employees were fired in response to this violation of company policy.  The NLRB filed a complaint against Starbucks alleging an unfair labor practice, and filed a petition for an injunction under section 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  The injunction would have required, for the duration of the administrative process, reinstatement of the terminated employees.  The District Court issued the injunction and it was affirmed by the Sixth Circuit.  The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in order to determine whether the test utilized by the lower courts was appropriate for granting injunctive relief.

The Court evaluated the test applied by the 6th Circuit, which required courts to determine whether “there is reasonable cause to believe that unfair labor practices have occurred,” and whether injunctive relief is “just and proper.”  The Court stated that preliminary injunctions are an “extraordinary” equitable remedy.”  It held that when Congress empowers courts to grant equitable relief, the presumption is that courts will do so in a manner “consistent with traditional principles of equity.”  The Court found that the two-pronged approach “substantively lowers the bar for securing a preliminary injunction by requiring courts to yield to the Board’s preliminary view of the facts, law and equities.”

The Court held a four-prong test should be applied, which requires the plaintiff seeking the injunction to make a clear showing that:

  1. It is likely to success on the merits;
  2. It is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief;
  3. That the balance of equities tips in its favor; and
  4. That an injunction is in the public interest.

Because the lower courts failed to utilize that test, the case was remanded for a determination as to whether those four tests were satisfied.

This is an important decision for employers.  It establishes a nationwide standard for injunctions, and keeps them from being issued in cases where it is less likely that the complaining party’s case will win.  Employees still have the ability to receive backpay and reinstatement if their complaints are ultimately successful, but it will be more difficult to keep them in the workplace during the pendency of their case.  While this case applies to federal labor unfair labor practices, it will be interesting to see if and how this decision impacts unfair labor practice decisions on a state level.  We’ll keep our eyes peeled for future decisions.  If you, or your organization, need assistance in responding to unfair labor practices, contact Wiley Reber Law, for legal advice that works.