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SCOTUS Limits the NLRB's Power to Obtain Preliminary Injunctions

By Tala Dahbour posted 15 days ago

  

Summary

On June 13, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the four-factor test in Winter v Natural Res Def Council, Inc, 555 US 7 (2008), governs the issuance of preliminary injunctions under section 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 29 USC 160(j). Starbucks Corp v McKinney, No 23-367, ___ US ___ (June 13, 2024). This opinion, with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson concurring in part and dissenting in part, imposes a more stringent standard on 10(j) preliminary injunctions, eliminating deference to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in such decisions.

Facts

The case arose when a Tennessee Starbucks terminated six employees, including union organizers, who had conducted a news interview about their unionization efforts at the store after hours. The union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, alleging violations under 29 USC 158(a)(1) and (3). Following an investigation, the NLRB issued a complaint against Starbucks, prompting the NLRB’s regional director to petition the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee for a preliminary injunction pending administrative proceedings, which included reinstating the terminated employees.

The district court applied a two-factor test established by Sixth Circuit precedent: (1) whether there was reasonable cause to believe an unfair labor practice had occurred and (2) whether injunctive relief was just and proper. Based on this standard, the district court granted the injunction, a decision affirmed by the Sixth Circuit.

Issue on Appeal

On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the issue centered on the appropriate standard for granting preliminary injunctions under section 10(j) of the NLRA. The Court held that the Winter four-factor test must be applied, resolving a circuit split. This test requires a movant to demonstrate (1) a clear showing of likely success on the merits, (2) the likelihood of irreparable harm absent preliminary relief, (3) that the balance of the equities tips in the movant’s favor, and (4) that an injunction is in the public interest.

Analysis

The Court reasoned that the language of 10(j) does not assume that Congress intended to override the traditional principles of equity that the Court found reflected in the Winter test. The Court rejected the NLRB’s argument that Congress entrusted the NLRB, not federal courts, with initial responsibility for adjudicating unfair labor practices, and therefore, that courts of appeals should review these decisions deferentially.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson concurred in part and dissented in part, stressing the importance of respecting congressional intent and the NLRB’s role in labor disputes. Jackson criticized the majority for potentially undermining the NLRA and the NLRB’s authority.

Conclusion

As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit was vacated, and the case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Winter test. This decision sets a precedent that may significantly influence future litigation involving preliminary injunctions sought under section 10(j) of the NLRA, marking a shift toward stricter scrutiny of the NLRB’s requests for such relief.

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