FLSA Forbids Retaliation for Filing Oral Complaints Too, U.S. Supreme Court Holds

Score another victory for employees from the U.S. Supreme Court, which hasn’t handed them many favorable decisions in recent years.
The Fair Labor Standard Act’s protections against retaliation extends to oral as well as verbal complaints, the high court ruled today.
The 6-2 ruling clears the way for Kevin Kasten to sue his employer, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, for allegedly firing him because he complained orally to company officials that its timeclocks were in a location that prevented workers from receiving credit for time spent putting on and taking off work-related protective gear.  A federal district court had found earlier that this placement violated the Act.
The FLSA forbids retaliation against any employee who has “filed any complaint.” Courts across the United States have struggled with the meaning of that three-word phrase, issuing conflicting decisions.

The Supreme Court cleared up the confusion today.  It held that even though the statute provides no definitive interpreetation of what those three words mean, “several functional considerations” lead to the conclusion that it means oral as well as written complaints.

For example, the court pointed out that the FLSA relies for its substantive enforcement on information and complaints received from employees. “Why would Congress want to limit the enforcement scheme’s effectiveness by inhibiting the use of the Act’s complaint procedure by those who would find it difficult to reduce their complaints to writing,” the court asked, “particulary the illiterate, less educated, overworked workers who were most in need of the Act’s help at the time of passage?”

Another functional consideration: Limiting the provision’s scope to written complaints could prevent government agencies from using hotlines, interviews, and other oral methods to receive complaints. And insofar as the provision covers complaints made to employers, a limited reading would discourage using informal workplace grievance procedures to secure compliance.

Finally, the court deferred to the U.S. Department of Labor, which has consistently held that “filed any complaint” covers both oral and written complaints. This view is reasonable and consistent with the statute, the court concluded.

Here’s the full decision.  And here’s leading labor lawyer Jon Hyman’s analysis of the decision’s impact for employers.

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