NURSES WHO direct less-skilled employees as part of their
duties are supervisors and not protected by federal labor law, the
Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote Monday.
The decision, enormously important for the health-care
industry, rejected the National Labor Relations Board's
interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act.
"We must decide whether the board's test for determining if
nurses are supervisors is rational and consistent with the act,"
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court. "We agree with the
court of appeals that it is not."
Kennedy said the the labor board wrongly concluded in an Ohio
case that nurses who direct aides are acting only in behalf of
patients and not in behalf of their employers.
Also Monday, the court ruled unanimously that federal judges
cannot second-guess government decisions to close military bases.
The decision was a victory for the Clinton administration in its
effort to shrink the post-Cold War armed forces.
The base-closing decision reversed an appellate court ruling
that had let Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., challenge the government's
decision to close the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
Three former staff nurses at the Heartland nursing home in
Urbana, Ohio, were involved in the nursing ruling. The 100-bed
nursing home is owned by the Toledo-based Health Care & Retirement
Corp. of America, which owns and operates about 140 nursing homes
in 27 states.
As part of their duties, Heartland's staff nurses give orders
to the nurse's aides. But the National Labor Relations Board noted
that staff nurses do not have the power to hire or fire the aides
and never discipline them.
Staff nurses Julie Goldsberry, Cynthia Cordrey and Ruby Wells,
upset by how Heartland was run, traveled to Toledo to speak to a
Health Care & Retirement Corp. official in early 1989. Shortly
thereafter, the three were disciplined and then fired.
A complaint filed with the labor board alleged that Heartland
had engaged in an unfair labor practice by firing the nurses for
engaging in concerted activity aimed at improving working
conditions for themselves and fellow employees. Such activity is
protected under the labor law.
Heartland officials said the three had been supervisors and
therefore were not entitled to labor law protection. The labor
board ruled that they were not supervisors and ordered them
reinstated with back pay.
But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year refused to
enforce the board's order, ruling that the nurses had been
The four dissenters in the Supreme Court decision said the
ruling could affect other workers besides the three nurses.
"If any person who may use independent judgment to assign tasks
to others or direct their work is a supervisor, then few
professionals employed by organizations subject to the act will
receive its protections," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the
In St. Louis, Jan Polizzi, a past president of the Missouri
Nurses Association, said, "I just wish a judge could follow a
nurse around and see whether we're acting on behalf of the patient
or the hospital. …