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No absolute right to presence of union representative in investigatory hearing

August 22nd, 2017  |  Ron Miller

It has been long held under NLRB v. J. Weingarten, Inc., that an employee must be allowed to bring a union representative to any investigatory interview she is required to attend if she reasonably believes the interview might result in disciplinary action. However, the D.C. Circuit recently reminded us that there is no absolute right to a union representative in the exercise of an employee’s Weingarten rights. In Midwest Division – MMC, LLC dba Menorah Medical Center v. NLRB, the appeals court observed that when employees are not obligated to take part in an investigatory hearing, there is no requirement that they be permitted to bring a union representative if they elect to participate. As a result, the NLRB’s determination that a hospital improperly denied the request of two nurses for union representation in peer-review-committee hearings was set aside by the appeals court.

Peer-review program. Kansas law calls for hospitals to establish an internal peer-review program to monitor the quality of care furnished by their medical professionals. As required by state law, the employer formed a peer-review committee for its nursing staff. The committee examines alleged violations of the applicable standard of care by the hospital’s nurses and reports serious breaches to the state licensing agency. The peer review committee does not itself impose any form of discipline, but reports to the appropriate licensing agency if it finds grounds for disciplinary action.

Investigation of substandard conduct. This case arose out of the peer-review committee’s investigation of two nurses for substandard conduct. In May 2012, the nurses received letters from the hospital’s risk manager alleging they had exhibited unprofessional conduct. They were reminded that a “Care Level 4″ determination must be reported to the Kansas Board of Nursing for potential disciplinary action. The nurses were afforded an opportunity to address the peer review committee if they chose. Both nurses asked to be allowed a union representative before the committee, but the employer denied the requests.

In response to the employer’s actions, the union filed unfair labor practice charges against the hospital. The Board ultimately found the hospital had violated the NLRA as alleged. The employer petitioned for review of the Board’s order, while the Board sought enforcement.

Denial of representation request. The appeals court considered whether the hospital violated the NLRA by denying the nurses’ request for union representation in connection with the peer-review hearings. In this instance, the court determined the Board’s ruling that the employer violated the nurses’ Weingarten rights could not be sustained. An employee’s Weingarten right is infringed when an employer compels him to appear at an interview that may put his job in jeopardy. However, absent compulsory attendance, the right to union representation recognized in Weingarten does not arise.

Here, the nurses were given precisely that choice. The letters advising them of the charges against them expressly “afforded an opportunity” to appear before the committee. However, neither nurse was compelled to attend a committee hearing so as to trigger a right to union representation under Weingarten.

Investigatory interview. Section 8 of the NLRA imposes three obligations on employers. First, an employee must be allowed to bring a union representative to any investigatory interview she is required to attend if she reasonably believes the interview might result in disciplinary action. Second, absent an overriding need for confidentiality, an employer must furnish labor unions (upon request) information bearing on the administration of a collective bargaining agreement. Third, employees presumptively must be permitted to communicate with one another in service of their Section 7 rights.

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