Saturday, April 2, 2011

FLSA Anti-Retaliation Provision Protects Oral as Well as Written Complaints

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the anti-retaliation provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) protects employees from retaliation for making either oral or written complaints about an employer's wage-hour policies [Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., U.S. Sup. Ct., Dkt. No. 09-834, 3/22/11].

The facts. Kevin Kasten claimed that he was fired by his former employer, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. (Saint-Gobain), because he orally complained to Saint-Gobain officials that the location of the company time clocks prevented workers from receiving credit for the time they spent donning and doffing work-related protective gear. The time clocks were located some distance from the location where the workers put on and took off the protective gear. Kasten's complaint was made through the company's internal grievance procedure.

The law. 29 USC 215(a)(3) of the FLSA prohibits an employer from discharging or discriminating against an employee because the employee “filed any complaint,” or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding related to the FLSA.

At issue was how to interpret the phrase “filed any complaint.” A federal district court had granted Saint-Gobain summary judgment, concluding that the FLSA's anti-retaliation provision did not cover oral complaints, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit had affirmed the ruling.

Supreme Court ruling. The Supreme Court held that the term “filed any complaint” includes oral, as well as written, complaints. The Court believed that a narrow interpretation of the term would undermine the FLSA's basic objective, which is to prohibit “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers” (see 29 USC 202(a)). It questioned why Congress would want to limit the enforcement scheme's effectiveness by inhibiting use of the FLSA's complaint procedure by those who would find it difficult to reduce their complaints to writing, particularly the illiterate, less educated, or overworked workers who were most in need of the FLSA's help.

The Supreme Court also said that limiting the anti-retaliation provision's scope to written complaints would prevent government agencies from using hotlines, interviews, and other oral methods to receive complaints. In addition, it would discourage using informal workplace grievance procedures to secure compliance with the FLSA.

The Supreme Court said that to fall within the scope of the anti-retaliation provision, a written or oral complaint must be sufficiently clear and detailed so that a reasonable employer would understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of rights protected by the statute.

The Supreme Court noted that the Secretary of Labor has consistently held the view that “filed any complaint” covers both oral and written complaints.

The case was remanded back to the Seventh Circuit for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court's opinion.

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