The NLRB Curtails the Scope of Nondisparagement and Confidentiality Provisions in Severance Agreements
On Tuesday, February 21, 2023, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) issued McLaren Macomb, a decision that curtails the permissible scope of confidentiality agreements and non-disclosure provisions in severance agreements. See McLaren Macomb, 372 NLRB No. 58 (2023). Analyzing the broad provisions in the agreements at issue in this case, the Board held that simply offering employees severance agreements that require employees to broadly waive their rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or “the Act”) was unlawful. The Board held:
Where an agreement unlawfully conditions receipt of severance benefits on the forfeiture of statutory rights, the mere proffer of the agreement itself violates the Act, because it has a reasonable tendency to interfere with or restrain the prospective exercise of Section 7 rights, both by the separating employee and those who remain. Whether the employee accepts the agreement is immaterial.
The Board’s decision is part of a broader trend by courts and administrative agencies applying heightened scrutiny to contractual provisions that limit employees’ rights. The decision also provides a crucial reminder to union and nonunion workers alike of the relevance of federal labor law in providing legal protections for most private-sector workers.
The case arose when Michigan hospital operator McLaren Macomb permanently furloughed eleven employees, all bargaining unit members of Local 40 RN Staff Council, Office of Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), AFL-CIO, because it had terminated outpatient services during the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020. After McLaren Macomb furloughed these employees, it presented them with a “Severance Agreement, Waiver and Release” that offered severance amounts to the employees if they signed the agreement. All eleven employees signed.
The agreements provided broad language regarding confidentiality and nondisparagement. The confidentiality provision stated, “The Employee acknowledges that the terms of this Agreement are confidential and agrees not to disclose them to any third person, other than spouse, or as necessary to professional advisors for the purposes of obtaining legal counsel or tax advice, or unless legally compelled to do so by a court or administrative agency of competent jurisdiction.” (emphasis added). The non-disclosure provision provided, in relevant part, “At all times hereafter, the Employee agrees not to make statements to Employer’s employees or to the general public which could disparage or harm the image of Employer…” The employees faced substantial financial penalties if they violated the provisions. The Employer conditioned the payment of severance on Employees’ entering into this agreement.
The NLRB’s Decision
In McLaren Macomb, the Board held that simply offering employees severance agreements that contain these broad confidentiality and nondisparagement provisions violates the NLRA.
The NLRA provides broad protections of employees’ rights to engage in collective action. Section 7 of the NLRA vests employees with a number of rights, including the right “to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Section 8(a)(1) of the Act makes it an unfair labor practice (ULP) for an employer to “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7.” As the Supreme Court, federal courts, and the NLRB have repeatedly held and reaffirmed, Section 7 provides broad rights for employees and former employees—union and nonunion alike—to engage in collective action, including discussing terms and conditions of employment and workplace issues with coworkers, a union, and the Board. As the Supreme Court has stated in elaborating on the broad construction of Section 7, “labor’s cause often is advanced on fronts other than collective bargaining and grievance settlement within the immediate employment context.” Eastex, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 437 U.S. 556, 565 (1978).
Applying these foundational principles to the severance agreements at hand, the Board reversed Trump-era NLRB precedent and concluded that the employer’s proffer of these broad nondisparagement and confidentiality provisions contravened the employees’ exercise of Section 7 rights, which is an unfair labor practice under Section 8(a)(1). Notably, the Board held that an employer’s merely offering such broad provisions violates the Act—it does not matter whether the employee signs the agreement or not.
The Board determined that the nondisparagement provision substantially interfered with employees’ Section 7 rights on its face. That provision prohibits the furloughed employee from making any “statements to [the] Employer’s employees or the general public which could disparage or harm the image of [the] Employer.” Analyzing this language, the Board reasoned that the provision would encompass employee conduct or critiques of the employer regarding any labor issue, dispute, or term and condition of employment. Accordingly, this proscription sweeps far too broadly—it prohibits employees from exercising their right to publicize labor disputes, a right which is protected by the Act. Moreover, the nondisparagement provision chills employees from exercising Section 7 rights, including efforts to assist fellow employees, cooperate with the Board’s investigation and litigation of unfair labor practices, and raise or assist in making workplace complaints to coworkers, their union, the Board, the media, or “almost anyone else.” As the Board underscored, “Public statements by employees about the workplace are central to the exercise of employee rights under the Act.”
The Board then concluded that the confidentiality provision also interfered with employees’ Section 7 rights in at least two ways. First, the Board explained that because the confidentiality provision prohibits the employee from disclosing the terms of the agreement “to any third person,” the agreement would reasonably tend to coerce the employee not to file a ULP charge with the Board or assist in a Board investigation. (emphasis added). Second, the same language would also prohibit the furloughed employee from discussing the terms of the agreement with former coworkers in similar situations, which would frustrate the mutual support between employees at the heart of the Act. As the Board summarized, “A severance agreement is unlawful if it precludes an employee from assisting coworkers with workplace issues concerning their employer, and from communicating with others, including a union, and the Board, about his employment.”
Takeaways for Employment Lawyers and Plaintiffs
First, while one might assume that labor law is exclusively the province of unions, their members, and their lawyers, McLaren Macomb demonstrates the relevance of the NLRA for employees regardless of union status. Although the workers in this case were unionized, the Section 7 rights at the heart of the NLRA apply to most private-sector employees, including nonunion employees. Indeed, because nonunion workers often have fewer workplace protections than their unionized counterparts, Section 7’s protections are critically important for nonunion employees. Employees who are asked to sign confidentiality and nondisparagement provisions and their attorneys should be aware that broad restrictions on employees’ concerted activity may be illegal.
Second, this decision is part of a broader effort to protect workers from being muzzled by their employers. For instance, the recent federal Speak Out Act establishes that predispute nondisclosure clauses and nondisparagement clauses—often included in employment contracts—are unenforceable in disputes involving sexual assault or sexual harassment. These recent developments in the law should be on the radar of workers and their attorneys who are navigating employer’s contracts, policies, handbooks, and proposed severance agreements.