Supreme Court Limits NLRB Injunctive Powers

The National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB/the Board) burden to secure injunctions against employers has been significantly raised following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in a case involving Starbucks. On June 13, 2024, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Starbucks Corp. v. McKinley, directing the federal courts to strictly apply a four-factor test when the Board seeks to halt alleged unfair labor practices by obtaining an injunction against employers.

The Court, in an 8-1 decision, held that a traditional four-factor test must be applied when the Board seeks injunctive relief pursuant to Section 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act (the Act). Section 10(j) enables the Board to pursue an injunction to stop alleged unfair labor practices while the merits of those charges are litigated through the Board’s internal mechanisms.

The Board argued that a less exacting version of the test should be applied under which the Board need only satisfy a “relaxed two-factor” standard to obtain an injunction. The test advocated for by the Board would require only a showing that there is “reasonable cause to believe that unfair labor practices have occurred” and that it’s “just and proper” to issue an injunction. In reversing the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court reverted to the traditional four-factor test set forth in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council. The four-factor test analyzes a petitioner’s likelihood of success on the merits, the chance of irreparable harm if the injunction isn’t granted, a balance of the parties’ interests, and whether an injunction is in the public interest. The Supreme Court found no basis for the Board’s relaxed standard in the text of Section 10(j) and found that the reasonable-cause standard “substantively lowers the bar for securing a preliminary injunction,” a remedy the Supreme Court considers “extraordinary” and a “considerable intrusion on a business.”

In addition to raising the bar for securing an injunction, the Court’s decision has also established a unified standard for the issuance of an injunction pursuant to Section 10(j) of the Act. Each Circuit Court of Appeals had adopted varying tests for 10(j) injunctive relief with some circuits following the four-factor test while other circuits utilized varying forms of the two-factor standard.

As a result of the decision, the Board will have an increased burden when it seeks to obtain an injunction against employers, a significant tool in the Board’s enforcement powers. Whether this decision will see a decrease in the Board’s pursuit of injunctive relief remains to be seen and employers should continue to consult with experienced labor counsel when confronted with unfair labor practice allegations.

If you have received an unfair labor practice charge or if you have any questions or concerns regarding the Board’s enforcement powers and procedures, please contact Daniel J. Sobol, Michael G. Tierce , Brandon S. Shemtob, or Michael G. Greenfield, or the Stevens & Lee attorney with whom you regularly work.