Supreme Court Rules Oral Complaints Of Wage Violations Are Protected Under FLSA

Today the U.S. Supreme Court issued another employee-friendly opinion in Kasten v. St. Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., holding by a 6-2 margin that the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") anti-retaliation provisions protect an employee’s oral complaints to supervisors about wage and hour violations. This is the latest of three opinions this term that have expanded the reach of various anti-retaliation provisions in employment discrimination statutes. (See World of Employment's analysis of the other two cases, Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP and Staub v. Proctor Hospital).

In Kasten, the plaintiff complained orally to his supervisors on several occasions that the location of time clocks in the workplace violated the FLSA, because it prevented employees from punching in and out while they were donning and doffing protective clothing and equipment.  Shortly afterwards, his employment was terminated for, ironically, multiple failures to properly punch in and out.  Plaintiff sued, claiming that his termination was in retaliation for his having complained that the Company was violating the FLSA.  The District Court dismissed his case, and the 7th Circuit affirmed, holding that the FLSA anti-retaliation provision, which prohibits employers from taking adverse action against employees because they “file any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding” complaining about wage and hour violations, protects only written complaints, not oral ones. 

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that oral complaints are also protected under the FLSA. The Court held first that the phrase “file any complaint” in the statute was ambiguous; the term “file” generally indicated a writing (although not always), while “any” indicated Congress intended to cover many different types of complaints.  The Court went on to look at the legislative history and purpose, Department of Labor interpretations, and numerous lower court opinions to ultimately decide that Congress must have intended the FLSA to protect oral complaints. 

At the end of the day, this opinion may change little for west coast employers. While the Kasten decision resolves a split among the Circuit courts, the law in the Ninth Circuit (which includes, amongst others, Oregon, Washington and California), has recognized for over a decade that oral complaints are protected under the FLSA. Further, the anti-retaliation provisions of other state and federal anti-discrimination statutes—most notably Title VII—also protect employees who make oral complaints of discrimination. Finally, the opinion merely holds that Mr. Kasten can go ahead with his lawsuit—he still needs to prove his case that his employer fired him because of his protected activity.

Still, Kasten and other recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Thompson and Staub provide useful reminders that courts--including the Supreme Court--read anti-retaliation protections broadly.  Employers must be careful to ensure and adequately document that any adverse employment actions against employees who have made any complaints about alleged unlawful activity in the past are for legitimate business reasons only. Retaliation claims are already the most common type of employment claims filed against employers.  This opinion isn’t going to change that. 

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