Saturday, June 01, 2013

CA Supreme Court: LA County Union Entitled to Home Addresses and Phone Numbers of Non-Union Employees

The California Supreme Court in a unanimous opinion addressed employees' privacy rights in the public sector union context. The decision has implications for non-union, private sector employers as well, so read on.

The Service Employees International Union, Local 721, represents Los Angeles County's employees.  However, employees within the union's collective bargaining unit may choose not to join the SEIU as a member. Here's how it works per the CA Supreme Court.

Each of the County‟s bargaining units has a memorandum of understanding (MOU), with SEIU. Most of these MOUs have an agency shop provision that gives County employees four options: (1) join SEIU and pay dues; (2) decline to join and pay a fair share fee; (3) decline to join, object to the fair share fee, and instead pay an agency shop fee; or (4) decline to join, claim a religious exemption, and pay the agency shop fee to a nonreligious, nonlabor charitable fund. A recognized bargaining agent acts on behalf of
all employees in a bargaining unit, whether the employees are union members or not.

Every year, the union sends out a packet of information.  Those who do not respond are deemed "fair share" fee payers.  The vast majority of non-members are "fair share" fee payers.  The "fair share" fee covers activities related to collective bargaining, but does not include contributions for the union's non-bargaining related activities, such as political activity.

The County historically did not disclose non-members' addresses and phone numbers. Instead, the union would send the packets to a third party, the LA County Employee Relations Commission, for distribution to the non-members.

In 2006, the union sought to amend the collective bargaining agreements to require the County to turn over the addresses and phone numbers of non-members. After the County refused, the union filed an administrative charge with the County ERC. The ERC held the County's refusal was an unfair labor practice.  The County filed a writ proceeding in Superior Court, which held that the non-members' privacy interests would have to yield to the union's need to discharge its duties as bargaining representatives of the non-members.

The Court of Appeal also held the union was entitled to the information, but for different reasons than the superior court.  The appellate court decided that the non-members had a right to notice and the opportunity to opt-out of disclosure, similar to the rights courts have fashioned in the context of class action litigation.

The California Supreme Court accepted the County's request for review.  First, the Court noted that the National Labor Relations Act does not apply to the County's union relationship.  The County's relationship is governed by state law, the MMBA.  LA County's ERCOM (rather than the NLRB in the private sector or the PERB that covers state workers and counties other than LA) enforces the MMBA.  I know, lots of acronyms.  Bottom line, though, is that PERB interpretations of the MMBA and the NLRB's decisions under the NLRA are persuasive authority.

The Court analyzed the PERB and NLRA decisions as well as the statute and other authorities. The Court concluded that the union is entitled to the names and addresses of the employees it represents, even when the employees do not sign up as "members" of the union and pay only the agency fee.

The Court then considered whether California's right to privacy outweighed the union's right to the information. The Court first decided that applicants and employees had a reasonable expectation that employers would keep personal contact information private.  The Court noted:

A job applicant who provides personal information to a prospective employer can reasonably expect that the employer will not divulge the information outside the entity except in very limited circumstances. For example, various laws require employers to disclose information to governmental agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration, and disclosure may also be necessary for banks or insurance companies to provide employee benefits. (See Belaire-West Landscape, Inc. v. Superior Court (2007) 149 Cal.App.4th 554, 561 (Belaire-West).) But beyond these required disclosures, it is reasonable for employees to expect that their home contact information will remain private "in light of employers‟ usual confidentiality customs and practices."

This conclusion is important to private sector, non-union employers, because it means that employees should be notified and should consent to disclosure to third parties, such as customers or vendors.  These notices and consents usually occur when employees sign up for benefits and the like.  Employee handbooks can contain a policy notifying employees that sometimes names and addresses will be disclosed to customers, vendors, etc. if that is a concern.

The Court next decided that disclosure of names and addresses amounted to a serious intrusion, another essential element of an invasion of privacy claim.

So, the County having established a reasonable expectation of privacy and a serious intrusion, the union had to show its legitimate interest in the information outweighed the employees' privacy interest.  The Court agreed that the union's interest was sufficiently important to justify the intrusion. 

The Court noted that employees and the County could put into place procedural safeguards themselves that would limit or preclude disclosure of non-members' information such as via collective bargaining: 
Employers like the County remain free to bargain for a notice and opt-out procedure in negotiating collective bargaining agreements with employee unions. Public employers can also draft employment contracts that will notify employees their home contact information is subject to disclosure to the union and permit employees to request nondisclosure. Finally, nothing in the relevant statutes or case law appears to prohibit agencies such as PERB or ERCOM from developing notice and opt-out procedures that would allow employees to preserve the confidentiality of their home addresses and telephone numbers

The decision is LA County v. Los Angeles County Employee Relations Commission and the opinion is here.