Thursday, March 24, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court: Oral Complaints Are Sufficient To Invoke Anti-Retaliation Provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act

In Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 09-834 (3/22/2011),the U.S. Supreme Court held that the anti-retaliation provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) protect employees who make oral complaints to an employer, when "a reasonable, objective person would have understood the employee to have put the employer on notice that the employee is asserting," his or her rights under the FLSA. This decision settles a disagreement that had existed among the Circuit Courts of Appeals as to whether oral complaints were sufficient, or whether the FLSA required an employee to file a written complaint before he/she could be protected from retaliation.

By way of background, the FLSA generally provides that employers that fall within its scope must pay non-exempt employees overtime pay at a rate of one-and-one-half the employee's regular rate of pay, for all hours that an employee works in excess of 40 in any week. Section 215(a)(3) of the Fair Labor Standards Act makes it illegal for an employer: "to discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to [the FLSA], or has testified or is about to testify in such proceeding, or has served or is about to serve on an industry committee." 29 U.S.C. 215(a)(3). As mentioned above, the Courts of Appeals have been in disagreement as whether the phrase "filed any complaint," requires a formal written complaint, or encompasses informal oral complaints as well.

In this case, the employee, Kasten, had made various oral complaints to his employer about the physical location of time-clocks in his place of employment, which were located between the area where Kasten and his other co-workers would put on and take off their work-related protective gear, and the area where they performed their job duties. Kasten believed that this placement prevented the workers from receiving credit for time that they spent "donning and doffing" their required protective gear, which is a violation of the FLSA. Kasten claimed to have made repeated oral complaints about the time-clock location to his employer in accordance with the employer's internal grievance procedure, and orally complained to his shift supervisor that "it was illegal for the time clocks to be where they were," because of the employer's exclusion of "the time you come in and start doing stuff." Kasten also complained to a member of the HR department that if the location of the time clocks "were to get challenged," in court, the employer "would lose." He also told his lead operator that the location was illegal and that he "was thinking about starting a lawsuit about the placement of the time clocks."

Kasten alleged that these complaints led his employer to discipline, and ultimately, terminate him.

The lower courts had dismissed Kasten's claims of retaliation, holding that the FLSA did not protect "oral" complaints, but required an employee to file written complaints to an employer before he/she could take advantage of the FLSA's anti-retaliation provision.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, and held that the FLSA's anti-retaliation provision protects both oral and written complaints. Finding that the text of the FLSA itself did not provide a conclusive answer to this issue, the Court's majority looked to the purpose and history of the FLSA, and concluded that limiting complaints by employees to only formal written complaints, would undermine the legislative purpose and intent of the Act, which was originally meant to protect illiterate and uneducated manufacturing laborers. The majority also noted that restricting complaints to only those in writing would prevent the Government agencies from using hotlines, interviews and other methods of receiving complaints from employees.

However, the Court did not go so far as to offer protection to all oral complaints, recognizing that the FLSA does require fair notice of alleged violations to be given to employers. Therefore, the majority held that while "fair notice" does not necessarily have to be in writing, an oral complaint will only be deemed to be "filed" under the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA when "a reasonable, objective person would have understood the employee to have put the employer on notice that the employee is asserting," his or her rights under the FLSA. Under the facts of this case, the majority determined that Kasten's oral complaints to his employer and supervisors met this objective test, and thus allowed Kasten's suit to proceed.

You can read both the majority and dissenting opinions in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-834.pdf