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  • AT&T Was Right in Banning Employee “Prisoner” T-shirts

    The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently ruled that AT&T had a right to forbid its employees, when interacting with the public, from wearing t-shirts that the company reasonably believed could harm its relationship with customers or its public image.

    In Southern New England Telephone Co. v. Nat’l Labor Relations Board, Nos. 11-1099 and 11-1143 (D.C. Cir. July 10, 2015), AT&T employees were urged by their union during contract negotiations to wear t-shirts on the job that said “INMATE” on the front and “Prisoner of AT&T” on the back. The company allowed the employees to wear the shirts in offices and other non-public workplaces but forbid them from wearing it when interacting with customers or working in public. 183 employees were issued one-day suspensions for not complying with AT&T’s ban.

    As a result of the suspensions, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge claiming that the discipline violated employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act. AT&T contended that while the workers may have the right to wear the shirt on the job, the company did not have to allow them to enter customers’ homes wearing “inmate” and “prisoner” labels because AT&T reasonably believed that it could offend customers and harm the company’s customer relations.

    A National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) administrative law judge ruled that AT&T committed an unfair labor practice and the NLRB affirmed 2 to 1, concluding that the company’s concerns were unfounded because the shirts “would not have been reasonably mistaken for prison garb.” The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned the NLRB decision (Kavanaugh, J.) stating that based on previous NLRB decisions, it is well established that when an employer can show “special circumstances,” its right to limit the display of union insignia can outweigh the employee’s rights to display it. “An employer that reasonably believes its employees’ union apparel at work may damage the employer’s relationship with its customers or its public image may invoke the ‘special circumstances’ exception.”

    This decision highlights the principle that when a company makes a reasonable business judgment about its business and relationship with its customers, the NLRB has to take this into consideration and cannot just ignore it and substitute its own business judgment for that of the company. Employers are encouraged to review related policies and ensure that any similar disciplinary actions are taken under “special circumstances” with the reasonable belief that their reputation or customer relationship is at stake.

    If you or your institution has any questions or concerns regarding employment related issues, please email Cynthia A. Augello at caugello@cullenanddykman.com or call her at (516) 357-3753.

    A special thank you to Lauren Dwarika, a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for her assistance with this blog post.