U.S. Supreme Court Holds That FLSA Anti-Retaliation Provision Protects Oral Complaints
March 25, 2011
On March 22, 2011, in a split decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that oral complaints are protected under the anti-retaliation provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. Although the Court discussed the validity of oral complaints at length, it refused to address whether the FLSA covers such oral complaints made solely to a private employer instead of a government agency.
Kasten is a former employee of Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation (St. Gobain). During Kasten’s employment, St. Gobain located its timeclocks between the area where its employees changed into and out of their work-related protective gear and the area where they carried out their assigned tasks. This location prevented employees from receiving credit for the time they spent putting on and removing their protective gear. Kasten complained repeatedly about the location of the timeclocks, and believed that his complaints resulted in his termination in December 2006. Following his termination, Kasten filed a lawsuit in the Western District of Wisconsin against St. Gobain alleging that he was retaliated against in violation of the FLSA. The District Court issued summary judgment for St. Gobain, holding that the FLSA did not protect oral complaints. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed that the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision did not cover oral complaints.
The Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit and held that the FLSA anti-retaliation provision covered oral complaints. In reaching this decision, the Court had two primary considerations: (1) effective enforcement of the FLSA, and (2) the position taken by the Department of Labor (DOL). Regarding the first consideration, the Supreme Court noted that the FLSA’s basic objective of prohibiting detrimental labor conditions was enforced by reliance on the reporting of violations by employees. The Court reasoned that this enforcement system is only effective if employees can report violations without fear of retribution, and surmised that excluding oral complaints from the category of protected activity would inhibit the use of the FLSA’s complaint procedure by “illiterate, less educated, or overworked workers.” Moreover, the Court found that limiting the scope of the anti-retaliation provision to written complaints would limit the DOL’s flexibility in enforcing the FLSA, as it would be unable to use hotlines, interviews and other oral methods to receive complaints. Regarding the second consideration, the Court found that the DOL’s view on the matter was entitled to “a degree of weight,” and the Secretary of Labor’s consistently held position that oral complaints were covered was strongly taken into consideration.
Unfortunately, this decision did not resolve the circuit split on whether an oral complaint must be "filed" with the government in order to be protected under the FLSA. However, employers should proceed cautiously when confronted with a possible oral complaint relating to wage and hour issues. This decision, combined with the DOL’s aggressive enforcement agenda, stress that employers are well-advised to insure that they understand and are complying with their myriad obligations under the FLSA. Further, this is the second employee-friendly retaliation decision issued this term. In light of this decision and Thompson v. North American Stainless, now more than ever, employers should take steps to be sure that they are documenting the legitimate reasons for all adverse employment decisions.