Supreme Court Agrees To Resolve Circuit Court Conflict Over Standard For Section 10(j) Injunction In Unionization Efforts Targeting Starbucks

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The boiling dispute over the unionization of baristas is heading to the Supreme Court. Section 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act authorizes federal courts to issue preliminary injunctions against employers that are allegedly violating federal labor law. This allows the National Labor Relations Board to seek this extraordinary relief at the outset of a case, before the employer can defend itself during the NLRB’s lengthy administrative process.

On January 12, the Court agreed to clarify what criteria federal courts should use when the NLRB seeks an injunction against an employer. Starbucks Corp. v. McKinney. The case involves a Starbucks location in Memphis. In January 2022, without authorization and in violation of company policy, employees invited a news crew into the store after closing time for an interview to express their support for a union. The next day, Starbucks fired seven employees who were involved, who then filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB. They are known as the Memphis Seven. The NLRB asked a federal judge to order Starbucks to reinstate the employees. The court did so, sending the baristas back to their daily grind. The injunction was upheld by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Starbucks then pressed the Supreme Court to step in, arguing that the case presented the perfect blend to resolve a conflict among the Circuit courts on a legal question—specifically, what criteria should a federal district court use in deciding whether to issue a Section 10(j) injunction. Section 10(j) itself empowers courts to grant injunctions “as it deems just and proper.” Some courts apply traditional criteria, treating preliminary injunctions as an extraordinary remedy to be rarely granted. Others, like the Sixth Circuit in the Starbucks case, apply a much less rigorous test that requires only that reasonable cause exists to believe the employer violated labor law.

The Supreme Court’s eventual decision will have significant ramifications for the NLRB. The NLRB General Counsel recently promised to bring the “weight of a federal district court’s order” down on employers more often. Last year, a federal court in New Jersey issued an injunction ordering an employer to hire back two fired unionized workers, applying the lenient reasonable cause that was applied in Starbucks case.

The NLRB may be cruisin’ for a brew-sin’ at the Supreme Court. While the NLRB under President Biden takes a broad view of the NLRA’s protections, the high court is likely to have a more limited view of when Section 10(j) injunctions are appropriate. The Court’s decision is expected by June.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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