(Bloomberg) -- A judge in Los Angeles dismissed a complaint against Sean Penn’s disaster relief organization that claimed a critical email the actor sent the nonprofit’s employees violated labor laws.

Penn’s 2021 message to CORE Response workers was a rallying cry to employees in the midst of CORE’s fight against Covid, not a threat, Administrative Law Judge Lisa Ross said Wednesday in dismissing the National Labor Relations Board case. The decision could be appealed to labor board members in Washington, and from there to federal court.

In the email, Penn said anonymous commenters on a New York Times story about CORE’s Covid vaccination operation at Dodger Stadium — including a person who complained about staff working 18-hour days, six days a week — were guilty of “reckless narcissism and self-indulgence.”

Penn suggested those who weren’t happy with their work should quit, adding: “In every cell of my body is a vitriol for the way your actions reflect so harmfully upon your brothers and sisters in arms.”

Ross called Penn’s language “inartful” but not threatening in the broader context of the email, which also includes encouragement and thanks for the organization’s employees.

“This was a very, very, very tough decision,” she said. “It was a very close case.”

Pandemic Growth

“I am disappointed that the judge appears to have found that a global pandemic excuses — rather than enhances — the illegality of Sean Penn’s coercive statements to employees,” said Daniel Rojas, the labor lawyer who initially filed the charge, adding that he expects the labor board will appeal.

The NLRB “clearly overstepped and misued” its power, Mathew Rosengart, a lawyer representing CORE, said in a statement.

“The charge and the complaint were ill-advised from the very outset and never should have been filed in the first place,” said Rosengart, who also represented Britney Spears in her conservatorship fight.  

Penn’s disaster relief organization exploded in size during the pandemic, transforming from a Caribbean-focused charity with about a dozen employees into Los Angeles’s de facto Covid response team.

While CORE administered millions of tests and vaccines, a Bloomberg Businessweek investigation earlier this year found gaps between its stated goals and its actions, leaving frustrated partners with lax ground-level work and loose management of multimillion-dollar federal grants.

The NLRB hearing had been delayed multiple times at the request of CORE’s lawyers, including a motion to postpone filed in August that said the actor’s work in Ukraine made it difficult for him to travel back to Los Angeles.  

Penn and CORE could have settled without paying a fine or monetary payment. Instead, the nonprofit’s lawyers pressed to get the complaint dismissed.

CORE spent roughly $1.7 million on legal fees in 2021 compared with $116,437 in 2020 and $12,000 in 2019, according to tax filings.

--With assistance from Josh Eidelson.

(Adds Daniel Rojas comment in seventh paragraph)

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.