On June 1, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which covers Connecticut, New York and Vermont, upheld a National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) finding that Whole Foods Market Group, Inc.’s no-recording policy was overbroad and violated the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).
In Whole Foods Market Group, Inc. v. NLRB, Whole Foods’ employee handbook contained a provision that prohibited employees from recording conversations, phone calls, and meetings, without first obtaining managerial approval. The court concluded that this no-recording policy violated the NLRA. The NLRA deems it an unfair labor practice “to interfere with, restrain or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights [to, among other things, engage in concerted activities for the purposes of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.] Whole Foods insisted that its policy was not intended to interfere with employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity or to prevent them from discussing their jobs, and that it was merely a general prohibition against recording in the workplace. Whole Foods argued that its policy was “to promote employee communication in the workplace” by assuring employees that their remarks would not be recorded.
The Second Circuit found, however, that the seemingly neutral policy was overbroad and could “chill” an employee’s exercise of rights under the NLRA. In other words, the policy prohibited recording regardless of whether the recording involved an exercise of those rights. As a result, “’employees would reasonably construe the language to prohibit’ recording protected by [the NLRA].” Despite finding that Whole Foods’ policy violated the NLRA, the Second Circuit said that “[i]t should be possible to craft a policy that places some limits on recording audio and video in the work place that does not violate the [NLRA].” Such a policy might be acceptable if it was narrow in scope, and furthered a legitimate safety concern.
Previously, in 1989, the Second Circuit held that recording a conversation at work in violation of a no-recording policy might not be sufficient “cause” for the termination of an employment agreement under Connecticut law. In Heller v. Champion Int’l Corp, (2d Cir. 1989), the Second Circuit rejected the employer’s assertion that such a recording constituted an act of disloyalty on the employee’s part. According to the Second Circuit in Heller, the employee’s surreptitious tape-recording to be sure, represents a kind of ‘disloyalty’ to the company, but not necessarily the kind of disloyalty that under these circumstances would warrant dismissal as a matter of law. . . . Considering the range of factors that might have justified [the employee’s] conduct, especially his belief that he was gathering evidence in support of a possible claim of age discrimination, we cannot say that [the employer] had sufficient cause, as a matter of law, to dismiss him.
The Second Circuit’s latest decision in Whole Foods makes clear that an overbroad no-recording policy in the workplace will be stricken in violation of the NLRA. At the very least, courts may disregard an overbroad policy depending upon the circumstances surrounding the recording. In order for a no-recording policy to withstand scrutiny, care must be taken to limit the scope of the prohibition, and consider whether the employee’s purpose for recording jeopardizes an employer’s legitimate interest.