Labor Law -- 2011

Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.   (U.S. Supreme Court)

Whether oral complaints are covered by anti-retaliation provisions of FLSA

An employee orally complained about the placement of a time clock during a period of months in which he was receiving increasing discipline for time-clock violations. When he was terminated after the fourth offense, he sued his employer, alleging a violation of the anti-retaliation provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act. That provision makes it unlawful for an employer to terminate an employee because such employee has "filed any complaint . . . ." under the Act.

The Seventh Circuit, along with a majority of other federal appeals courts, ruled that this law covers employees who have filed written complaints, not just made oral statements. On March 22, 2011, the Supreme Court reversed, deciding that the statute also covers employees who do not put their claims in writing. It interpreted "filing" a complaint broadly to encourage "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 Act's help at the time of passage[.]"

This interpretation could open up a tremendous volume of lawsuits following termination decisions. In August, 2010, the NAM joined with the Equal Employment Advisory Council and the NFIB in an amicus brief arguing that the Fair Labor Standards Act provision is clear and narrower than similar provisions under other federal civil rights statutes which prohibit retaliation based on an individual's mere opposition to an employment practice. Extending the FLSA to verbal complaints would undermine the ability of employers to effectively manage their workforces and enforce legitimate workplace rules.

Requiring written complaints of potential violations "not only would facilitate swift resolution of the dispute, but also would discourage employees from making false or frivolous complaints that stem more from idle 'grumblings' than from legitimate workplace concerns." Written complaints are fully protected against retaliation and can be properly addressed by management.

The Court's new interpretation providing special status to employees making oral complaints makes employers face more difficult problems when addressing poor performance or disciplinary situations. It can be difficult to tell when an employee is making a statement that constitutes "filing a complaint," but the Court adopted the following test to make that decision: "To fall within the scope of the antiretaliation provision, a complaint must be sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of rights protected by the statute and a call for their protection. This standard can be met, however, by oral complaints, as well as by written ones." This issue is likely to be one of those raised in future cases fleshing out this decision.

Related Documents:
NAM brief  (August 23, 2010)