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The United States Supreme Court recently ruled that "oral complaints" fall within the statutory term "filed any complaint" as it applies to the Anti-Retaliation Provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The Supreme Court’s decision in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation clarifies the prior split in the Circuit Courts of Appeal regarding the application of oral complaints to the Act and allows an employee to bring an unlawful retaliation claim premised upon an oral complaint previously made to his employer.  The Court did maintain, however, that in order to fall within the purview of the Act’s anti-retaliation provision, a complaint, whether oral or written, must be sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it as an assertion of rights protected by the Act and as a call for protection by the complaining employee.

The Petitioner, Kevin Kasten, originally filed an anti-retaliation lawsuit against his former employer Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation.  Kasten’s complaint alleged that Saint-Gobain improperly terminated him after he complained that it located its time clocks in an area that prevented workers from receiving full credit for the entirety of their time spent at work.  Specifically, Kasten complained that Saint-Gobain located its time clocks between the area where Kasten and other workers put on and take off their work-related protective equipment and the area where they actually carry out their daily tasks.  Kasten complained that this location violated the Act because it prevented workers from receiving credit for the time spent donning and doffing their work clothes.  In accordance with Saint-Gobain’s internal grievance procedures, Kasten complained to his shift supervisor, human resources and his operations manager.  He further advised them that the location of the clocks was illegal and that if he challenged the location in court, Saint-Gobain would lose.  Kasten also told his lead operator that the location was illegal and he was thinking of starting a lawsuit regarding the placement of the clocks.

Kasten was subsequently terminated and consequently brought suit under the anti-retaliation provision of the Act.  The United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin granted summary judgment in favor of Saint-Gobain based upon the premise that the Act did not protect oral complaints.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the decision of the District Court.

In concluding that the Seventh Circuit erred in its finding that oral complaints do not fall within the scope of the Act’s anti-retaliation provision, the Supreme Court looked to various sources, including the language of the Act itself.  The Fair Labor Standards Act’s anti-retaliation provisions provide that employers may not:

"discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee hasfiled any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to [the Act], or has testified or is about to testify in such proceeding, or has served or is about to serve on an industry committee." 29 USC 215(a)(3).

The Court determined that while the language of the Act itself may be open to varying interpretations, considering the Act’s language in conjunction with its purpose and context can only lead to one appropriate interpretation.

In performing its analysis, the Court next looked to the various agencies charged with enforcing the Act.  For example, the Court lent consideration to the fact that the Department of Labor had consistently held that oral complaints were covered under the Act.  SeeGoldberg v. Zenger, 43 CCH LC ¶31, 155 (D. Utah 1961).  It also noted that, more recently, the Department of Labor has created a hotline by which oral complaints can be made pursuant to the Act.  See, Dept. of Labor, Compliance Assistance By Law, which directs those wishing to file a complaint to contact its Help Line.  The Court also gave deference to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s viewpoint, as set forth in its compliance manual and several briefs, that the Act covers oral complaints.  SeeEEOC Compliance Manual, Vol. 2, § 8-II(B)(2) and n. 12 (1998).

The Court went a step further and advised that the Act’s humanitarian and remedial purpose cautions against a narrow interpretation.  The Court looked to the words of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in a message to Congress in 1937, advised that the workers most in need of the Act’s help were likely those who would find it difficult to reduce their complaints to writing – particularly illiterate, less educated workers.  The Court’s ruling to include oral complaints within the purview of the Act broadens the scope of protection for those voicing workplace grievances and is geared towards preventing workers from the fear of economic retaliation for doing so.  The Court saw no logic in limiting the enforcement of the Act by inhibiting the use of the Act’s complaint procedure for those who needed it most.

As a result of the Court’s ruling, management figures should advise those authorized to receive complaints that oral complaints constitute valid complaints under the Act and accordingly should be documented and reported to Human Resources or appropriate personnel.  This is important so that the complaint can be acted on and considered for its merits before an adverse employment action is filed by the complaining employee.