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June 13, 2024

Supreme Court Decides Starbucks Corp. v. McKinney, Regional Director of Region 15 of the National Labor Relations Board

On June 13, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Starbucks Corporation v. McKinney, No. 23-367, holding that courts evaluating a request for a preliminary injunction under § 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act must apply the traditional four factors articulated in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7. Pp. 4–11, not some other more lenient standard.

After several Starbucks employees announced plans to unionize, they invited a local news crew to the store after hours to promote their unionizing efforts. Starbucks fired multiple employees involved with the media event for violating company policy. The National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint alleging that Starbucks had engaged in unfair labor practices and petitioned, under § 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act, for a preliminary injunction that would, among other things, require that Starbucks reinstate the fired employees. Section 10(j) of the Act provides that the Board may “petition any United States district court . . . for appropriate temporary relief,” and that a district court may “grant to the Board such temporary relief . . . as it deems just and proper.”

The District Court granted the injunction after applying a two-part test that asked, first, whether there was reasonable cause to believe that unfair labor practices have occurred and, second, whether injunctive relief was just and proper. The Sixth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, explaining that injunctive relief under § 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act required the traditional four-factor analysis, not the watered-down two-part test, which the lower courts had applied. The Court explained that when Congress empowers courts to grant equitable relief, there is a strong presumption that courts will exercise that authority in a manner consistent with the traditional equitable principles described by the Court in Winter. Plaintiffs seeking a preliminary injunction must make a clear showing that: (i) they are likely to succeed on the merits; (ii) they are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief; (iii) the balance of equities tips in their favor; and (iv) that an injunction is in the public interest.

The Court rejected the Board’s argument that § 10(j)’s statutory directive created a new, less-exacting reasonable-cause standard for injunctive relief. The Court explained that § 10(j)’s text bears no resemblance to language employed by Congress to alter normal equitable rules, and that the “just and proper” directive invoked the standard equitable principles described in Winter. The Court was likewise unpersuaded that its decision would improperly supplant the Board’s adjudicatory authority. The Court vacated and remanded for proceedings consistent with the principles described in its opinion.

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett joined. Justice Jackson concurred in the judgment, but filed a separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

Download Opinion of the Court

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