starrMy colleague Gary Starr returns today with a decision from the Second Circuit (which covers Connecticut) that may just surprise you. Then again, if you’ve been following this line of reasoning, perhaps not.

There are outer limits to insulting speech, but a recent decision seems to indicate that it is really really far out there.

The questions up for consideration: When can an employer fire an employee for profanity during a union organizing drive?  When does the employee who stoops to insult not only his supervisor, but his mother, lost the protection of the National Labor Relations Act?

The Second Circuit faced these questions and provided a glimmer of hope for employers.

During the course of a nasty union organizing drive at a catering company, an employee became very upset at what he considered the employer’s continued disrespect for the employees.

In response, Perez used his iPhone during a work break to post the following:  “Bob [his supervisor] is such a NASTY MOTHER F****R don’t know how to talk to people!!!! F*** his mother and his entire f***ing family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!”

Perez had about ten other employees as friends on Facebook, but the post was also available to the public. Management learned of the post, investigated, and then fired Perez, just days before the election.

An administrative law judge found that the firing violated the law as Perez was engaged in protected, concerted activities.  This decision was upheld by the NLRB.  The case was then appealed to the Second Circuit.

At the court, the question was whether the post exceeded the bounds of protection by using profanity and insulting the supervisor’s mother.

While the Court in NLRB v. Pier Sixty was disturbed by the language and by the Labor Board’s failure to adequately take into account the employer’s interests in assessing how to evaluate a social media posts, it nonetheless, found a violation of labor law by the employer.

The Court noted that the employer had not disciplined many others for profanity in the past, even though profanity was a common occurrence in the kitchen,  that the language was not used at a catered event or in front of customers, that the message focused on matters that are protected, concerns about respect, that the message concluded by urging readers to vote for the union, and that the discharge occurred two days before the voting.

While the Second Circuit upheld the Labor Board’s decision, it sent a message that these facts are on the “outer-bounds of protected, union-related comments.”   It cautioned the Labor Board that it needed to be sensitive to employers’ legitimate disciplinary interests and to properly balance the competing interests of employees, unions and employers.

The facts in this case presented the court with hurdles it could not get over.  Profanity was common in the workplace, employees had not been disciplined for using profanity in the past, and the incident was almost on the eve of the union vote.  The employer was unable to show that the posting online had harmed its business.  But in another context, using union organizing as a shield to insult supervisors’ mothers may not work.

Let’s try something a little new today: I’ll give you some facts and see if you can pick the result that a court or agency found. (Hat tip to Overlawyered for highlighting some of these issues.)  I’ll give you the lesson learned from these cases at the end.

Used Car Salesman Loses Temper

1.  Nick is hired in late August 2008 as a used car salesman (really).  On the first day on the job, Nick worked in a tent sale and inquired about the bathroom facilities.  The manager responded that it was in the store.  The next week, when he asked if he could use the bathroom during tent sales, the manager responded “you’re always on break buddy … you just wait for customers all day”.  He told Nick that he could leave if he did not like the employer’s policies.  During the next tent sale, he asked other salespeople about the compensation policy. He also raised the issue of bathroom breaks as well.

At another tent sale (apparently, tent sales are very popular), Nick asked his manager about the commissions for a vehicle and thought the employer was stealing money from him in calculating his commissions.  He then went to the state’s wage & hour agency to obtain more information about commission-based payments.

By October 2008, his manager met with Nick in private office saying that he had no intention of firing Nick but that he was “talking a lot of negative stuff” and asking too many questions.  The manager also said that if Nick did not trust the employer, he didn’t need to work there.  Nick then lost his temper calling the manager a “f–ing mother f–ing”, a “f—ing crook” and an “a–hole.”  Nick also told the manager he was “stupid” and stood up, pushed his chair aside and told the manager that if he was fired, the manager would regret it.

Nick is then fired and brings a claim against his employer.

Will Nick win his claim?

a) No, yelling at his boss is “obscene and denigrating” and thus grounds to fire the employee, even if he did engage in some “protected” activity.

b) No, while he made threats against his boss, they were empty words and he did not engage in “protected” actvity anyways because mere discussions regarding compensation are not covered.

c) Yes, because Nick’s outburst was not menacing, physically aggressive or belligerent and he engaged in “protected” activity.

d) Yes, because the right to use a bathroom is protected under state law and Nick was right to be upset that his use was restricted.

Continue Reading You Be The “Judge”: Is Swearing at Work Protected by Federal Law?