On December 11, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board issued a greatly anticipated decision in Purple Communications , Inc. v. Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO. The Board held employees may use employer email systems for statutorily protected communications on nonworking time, unless the employer shows a business justification for prohibiting it. In reaching this decision, the Board overruled prior case law to respond to technological changes in society.
The Board overruled its 2007 decision in Register Guard, finding it "was clearly incorrect." Register Guard held an employer may completely prohibit employees from using the employer's email system for concerted activities protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. Register Guard allowed employers to completely ban employees from using the employers email system for these purposes without demonstrating any business justification, so long as the ban was not applied discriminatorily.
Purple Communications overruled Register Guard, finding it undervalued employees' core Section 7 right to communicate in the workplace about their terms and conditions of employment, and granted too much weight to employers' property right. The Board noted statistics showing email has become the most pervasive form of communication in the business world. The Board also discussed the Supreme Court's decision in City of Ontario, California v. Quon, which found some personal use of employer email is common and usually accepted by employers.
The Board stressed its holding in Purple Communications is "carefully limited." The holding only applies to employees who have already been granted access to the employer's email system and does not require employers to provide such access. Also, an employer may justify a total ban on nonwork use of email by showing the ban is necessary to maintain production or discipline. Employers may also impose uniform and consistent controls over its email system to the extent necessary to maintain production and discipline. The holding is limited to email access, and does not extend to other forms of electronic communication. Although a small step, this decision shows the Board's willingness to adapt to ever-increasing technological changes.
This decision is about access to employers' email systems, not confidentiality of those emails. It is possible some employers will read emails sent through their email systems and labor leaders should use caution about what they send on an employers' email system.