May 16, 2017
On March 21, 2017, the Supreme Court decided National Labor Relations Board v. SW General, Inc. SW General, Inc. provides ambulance services to hospitals in Arizona. A union had negotiated longevity pay for SW General’s emergency medical technicians, nurses, and firefighters. In December 2012, between the expiration of one collective bargaining agreement and the negotiation of a new one, SW General stopped paying the longevity pay. The union filed an unfair labor practices claim with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which issued a formal complaint. An administrative law judge determined that SW General had committed unfair labor practices, but SW General contended that the NLRB complaint was invalid because the Acting General Counsel of the NLRB at the time, Lafe Solomon, had been serving in violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (FVRA). President Barack Obama had nominated Solomon--who had then been serving as Acting General Counsel after the General Counsel had resigned--to serve as General Counsel, but the Senate had not acted on the nomination. The president had ultimately withdrawn the nomination and replaced it with that of Richard Griffin, who was confirmed. In the intervening period--including when the NLRB complaint had issued against SW General--Solomon had continued to serve as Acting General Counsel. SW General argued that under the FVRA, Solomon became ineligible to hold the Acting position once nominated by the president to the General Counsel position. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed and vacated the NLRB’s enforcement order. The NLRB then obtained a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court.
By a vote of 6-2, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the D.C. Circuit. In an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court held that (1) subsection (b)(1) of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, which prevents a person who has been nominated to fill a vacant office requiring presidential appointment and Senate confirmation from performing the duties of that office in an acting capacity, applies to anyone performing acting service under the FVRA and is not limited to first assistants performing acting service under Subsection (a)(1); and (2) Subsection (b)(1) prohibited Lafe Solomon from continuing his service as acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board once the president nominated him to fill the position permanently. The Chief Justice’s majority opinion was joined by Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined.
To discuss the case, we have Kristin Hickman, who is the Distinguished McKnight University Professor, Harlan Albert Rogers Professor of Law, and Associate Director, Corporate Institute at the University of Minnesota Law School.