The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) upheld an administrative law judge’s (ALJ) ruling directing that an unfair labor practice trial be conducted by videoconference because of the COVID-19 pandemic. William Beaumont Hospital, 370 NLRB No. 9 (Aug. 13, 2020). This decision may have broad effect even after COVID-19 concerns have passed.
In-person testimony has been the standard for NLRB proceedings. In the past, in relatively rare instances, the NLRB has permitted remote testimony in representation case (cases involving elections) hearings, but telephone or video testimony in an unfair labor practice trial (one in which it is alleged a party violated the [National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)] has been infrequent (although NLRB rules permit it under “compelling circumstances”).
Representation case hearings are considered by the NLRB to be non-adversarial – for the purpose of “fact-gathering.” On the other hand, unfair labor practice trials require a careful assessment of conflicting evidence and testimony by the ALJ. It often is said the NLRB does not make “credibility resolutions” in representation case hearings, while assessing witness credibility is essential in an unfair labor practice trial. Viewing testimony in-person best allows the judge to observe witnesses’ demeanor, as well as anything within view of the witness, including counsel and the parties.
In today’s pandemic era, representation case hearings are routinely conducted remotely. However, the concerns over video unfair labor practice trials remain. Prior to a trial recently scheduled to be heard by videoconference, an employer requested a delay to allow an in-person proceeding. The employer cited an NLRB rule providing parties have “the right to appear at a hearing in person, by counsel, or by other representative.” Further, the company cited a litany of concerns arising from the use of video, involving credibility, technological issues, sharing and reviewing evidence, difficulties in cross-examination, and more.
The ALJ denied the request and the employer appealed to the NLRB, which upheld the ALJ.
In William Beaumont, the NLRB held that, although COVID-19 concerns were somewhat reduced, it is within the ALJ’s discretion to rule that the pandemic still amounted to “compelling circumstances” allowing use of video. Further, the ALJ did not abuse his discretion by not delaying the trial, because, at this time, the delay could be “indefinite.” Finally, the NLRB held that the employer’s concerns were speculative – and that each issue could be addressed at trial, before the ALJ, or by post-decision appeals. Significantly, the NLRB held the “right to appear” cited by the employer merely means “the right to appear at a hearing at all, not the right to be physically present.”
This decision likely will be cited to support videoconference unfair labor practice trials for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the decision’s broad reading of ALJs’ discretion may augur greater use of video trials, even post-pandemic.
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