A Return Of "Common Sense" To The Courtroom? DC Circuit Concludes That AT&T Connecticut Was Justified In Banning Employees From Wearing “Prisoner Of AT$T” Shirts In Customer Homes

LR-Three-Men-In-HardhatsHow would you feel if a telephone or cable repair person showed up at your residence wearing a t-shirt that said “Inmate”?  In Southern New England Telephone Company v. National Labor Relations Board  the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently reversed a finding of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) that AT&T Connecticut (“AT&T”) unlawfully prohibited many of its employees from wearing union issued t-shirts.  The shirts stated “Inmate#” on the front and “Prisoner of AT$T” on the back.

AT&T had banned employees from wearing those shirts in public or when interacting with customers, and had suspended employees who violated the ban.  The employees’ union filed an unfair labor practice charge under Section 8 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), asserting that the ban violated employee rights under Section 7 to wear shirts indicating union support.  The NLRB agreed with the union, and rejected AT&T’s assertion that the “special circumstances” doctrine (a judicially recognized limitation on Section 7 rights under which a company may lawfully ban union messages on publicly visible apparel on the job when the company reasonably believes the message may harm its relationship with its customers, or its public image) permitted the ban.  While AT&T argued that the shirts could alarm or confuse customers, cause customers to believe that AT&T employees were actually convicts, or otherwise generally harm the company’s public image, the NLRB found to the contrary, concluding that the shirts would not cause fear in customers since they could not be confused for actual prison garb.

Confirming that “[c]ommon sense sometimes matters in resolving legal disputes”, the Court of Appeals found the NLRB’s rejection of AT&T’s special circumstances defense unreasonable.  The Court determined that the appropriate test is not whether AT&T customers might confuse the shirt with actual prison garb, but instead whether AT&T could reasonably believe that the message may harm its relationship with its customers or its public image.  Noting that the NLRB’s “expertise is surely not at its peak in the realm of employer-customer relations”, the Court concluded that to resolve the case one need only ask “[w]hat would you think about a company that permitted its technicians to wear such shirts when making home service calls?”

While the ruling does not alter the existing parameters of employer dress codes under the NLRA, it is refreshing to see a common sense approach applied to the review of employer-workplace decisions.

This blog/web site presents general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice, and you should not consider or rely on it as such. You should consult an attorney for individual advice regarding your own situation. This website is not an offer to represent you. You should not act, or refrain from acting, based upon any information at this website. Neither our presentation of such information nor your receipt of it creates nor will create an attorney-client relationship with any reader of this blog. Any links from another site to the blog are beyond the control of Pullman & Comley, LLC and do not convey their approval, support or any relationship to any site or organization. Any description of a result obtained for a client in the past is not intended to be, and is not, a guarantee or promise the firm can or will achieve a similar outcome.

Subscribe to Updates

About Our Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law Blog

Alerts, commentary, and insights from the attorneys of Pullman & Comley’s Labor, Employment Law and Employee Benefits practice on such workplace topics as labor and employment law, counseling and training, litigation, immigration law and union issues, as well as employee benefits and ERISA matters.

Other Blogs by Pullman & Comley

Connecticut Health Law Blog

Education Law Notes

For What It May Be Worth

Recent Posts


Jump to Page