According to the British site, The Phrase Finder, the expression When the shit hits the fan “alludes to the unmissable effects of shit being thrown into an electric fan.” That’s lovely. The Cambridge Dictionary (also U.K.) describes the idiom a bit more delicately: “also, when the shit flies, [when] a situation suddenly causes a lot of trouble for someone.”
Thank you, British internet!
In any event, this expression seems to capture the predicament the NLRB suddenly finds itself in after the D.C. Court of Appeals issued its unexpected ruling a couple weeks ago in the ongoing Browning-Ferris case, which we wrote about here.
The ruling vastly complicated the NLRB’s efforts to adopt a more pro-business definition of “joint employment” that would require direct control over essential terms of employment before joint employment could be found. The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the meaning of “joint employment” under the National Labor Relations Act is determined by the common law Right to Control Test, and that the NLRB has no authority to change the definition in a way that is inconsistent with the common law meaning.
The common law Right to Control Test, to the current Board’s dismay, allows for a finding of joint employment when control is reserved, even if the right to control is not actually exercised. That ruling is contrary to the definition being proposed by the NLRB as part of its ongoing effort to enact a new regulation through the rulemaking process.
Since the D.C. Court of Appeals ruling, here’s what’s been happening:
First, two key Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Board Chair John Ring, asking that the Board abandon its rulemaking effort in light of the court’s ruling. Nice effort, but that’s not likely to happen.
Second, “in light of the unique circumstance” posed by the court’s decision, the Board has again extended the period for the public to submit comments on the proposed rule. The new deadline is January 28, 2019, with reply comments due February 11, 2019. This is the third time the Board has extended the comment period. The second extension inspired one of my favorite posts, “Amazon Users (espec. Cindy, Amy & kris), Please Don’t Submit Comments On the NLRB’s Proposed Joint Employment Rule,” which if you missed, it’s not too late.
So what happens next? The Board has a few options:
1. It can change the proposed rule to allow for a finding of joint employment when a company reserves the right to exercise control, even if the control is indirect and is never actually exercised, but only if the right to control covers “essential” terms and conditions of employment. That change would be consistent with the D.C. Court of Appeals ruling, but it’s not as sweeping a change as current pro-business Board majority would like.
2. It can plow forward with its current rulemaking plan and ignore the D.C. Court of Appeals. The NLRB typically ignores decisions by the U.S. Courts of Appeal on the basis that there are 12 regional federal Courts of Appeal and they don’t always agree, while on the other hand, the NLRB’s authority is national, not regional. This approach often results in circuit splits, in which Courts of Appeal issue contradictory rulings, a situation that generally results in the U.S. Supreme Court deciding the issue once and for all. If the NLRB takes this approach, a circuit split could develop, and the Supreme Court would be likely to get involved, but it would probably take years before that wound its way up to the Supreme Court.
3. It can ask the full slate of D.C. Court of Appeals judges to re-hear the case. This is called an en banc proceeding. Since the decision was 2-1, there could be some momentum toward the full slate of judges agreeing to reconsider the case, but even if that happens, there is no guarantee the ruling would be any different.
4. The D.C. Court of Appeals decision can be appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court could decide to hear the case, or it could decline and allow the law to further develop. The Supreme Court often waits to hear what other Courts of Appeal have to say before it issues a final decision. But even if the Supreme Court takes the case, there is no assurance that the NLRB will get the ruling it wants.
Here’s why. On one hand, the newly constituted Supreme Court is more conservative and is regarded as more pro-business, which would appear to suggest support for the outcome that the pro-business NLRB would want — authority to narrow the definition of joint employment to situations in which control is directly exercised, not merely reserved.
But on the other hand, the current Supreme Court seems less and less inclined to defer to agencies’ interpretations of statutes. While the current Supreme Court may be sympathetic to the outcome desired by the NLRB, it is unlikely to be sympathetic to the process by which the NLRB wants to achieve that outcome. The Supreme Court’s current members seem inclined to limit the authority of federal agencies to re-interpret the law.
There are lots of ways the joint employment saga might play out. But for now, it’s fair to say that the D.C. Court of Appeals decision was unexpected and messy, in a way that alludes to the unmissable effects of excrement being thrown into an electric fan (as the Brits might say).
For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in Orlando on Jan. 24, Philadelphia on Feb. 26, or Chicago on Mar. 21 for the 2019 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: Meeting Today’s Challenges. Advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, firstname.lastname@example.org. If you list my name in your RSVP, I will have your registration fee waived.
© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.