• Supreme Court Slaps Down NLRB - Holds That Registered Nurses Who Direct Others are Supervisors
  • May 7, 2003
  • Law Firm: Buchanan Ingersoll, Professional Corporation - Pittsburgh Office
  • The United States Supreme Court recently handed down a decision holding that registered nurses who direct others are supervisors under the National Labor Relations Act.

    The case involves six registered nurses employed by Kentucky River Community Care, Inc., a facility for mentally retarded and mentally ill residents. The Carpenters Union petitioned the NLRB to represent a unit consisting of all 110 professional and non-professional employees. The employer attempted to exclude its six registered nurses on the basis that they were supervisors because they exercised "independent judgment" in directing less skilled employees. The Board rejected the employer's argument and conducted an election, which included the registered nurses, and which the union won.

    The employer then refused to bargain with the union because the bargaining unit included supervisors. An unfair labor practice complaint was issued, and the Board granted summary judgment against the employer. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit refused to enforce the order. It held that the Board had erred in placing the burden of proving supervisory status on the employer, and classifying "the practice of a nurse supervising a nurse's aide in administrating patient care" as "'routine' [simply] because the nurses have the ability to direct patient care by virtue of their training and expertise, not because of their connection with 'management.'"

    The Supreme Court noted that the definition of "supervisor" in the National Labor Relations Act is "any individual having authority, in the interest of the employer, to ... responsibly...direct [other employees],...if in connection with the foregoing the exercise of such authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment." The Court found that the Board's holding that registered nurses do not use "independent judgment" when they exercise "ordinary professional or technical judgment in directing less skilled employees" was at odds with the statute. The Court noted that the Board's interpretation went beyond the limits of ambiguity in the statute, and contradicted what was "quite clear." The Court was startled by the Board's position that, notwithstanding the judgment of registered nurses, which might be significant in a setting where there is only loose constraint by the employer, if the judgment is "professional or technical" in nature, it would nonetheless not be independent. The Court stated, "The breadth of this exclusion is made all the more startling by virtue of the Board's extension of it to judgment based on greater 'experience' as well as formal training. What supervisory judgment worth exercising, one must wonder, does not rest on 'professional or technical skill or experience'?" The Court went on to say that if the Board applied this aspect of the test to every exercise of supervisory function, it would virtually eliminate "supervisors" from the Act.

    Having struck down the Board's interpretation of supervisors, the Court noted that it could not enforce the Board's order by applying a legal standard of its own, and therefore denied enforcement of the order.

    This holding should be of great relief to those in the healthcare industry, where registered nurses have the responsibility to direct less skilled employees by using their professional judgment. The Board will now have to consider such registered nurses to be supervisors, and exclude them from bargaining units.

    Also, the Court's ruling seems to open the door for employers to refuse to deal with unions that represent their registered nurses who supervise others.

    Nat'l Labor Relations Bd. v. Kentucky River Community Care, Inc., No. 99-1815 (U.S. May 29, 2001).