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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Kasten v. Saint-Gobain: Verbal Complaints Protected Under FLSA, US Supreme Court Says

Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. (3/22/11) --- U.S. ---, 2011 WL 977061, resolves an important question regarding retaliation claims under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA makes it illegal “to discharge ... any employee because such employee has filed any complaint” alleging a violation of the Act. 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3).

The District Court in one action found that defendant Saint-Gobain violated the FLSA by placing timeclocks in a location that prevented workers from receiving credit for the time they spent donning and doffing work-related protective gear.

Plaintiff Kevin Kasten then brought an FLSA anti-retaliation suit against Saint-Gobain, alleging that Saint-Gobain discharged him because he orally complained to company officials about the timeclocks. The District Court granted Saint-Gobain summary judgment, concluding that the Act's antiretaliation provision did not cover oral complaints. The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Congress intended the antiretaliation provision to cover oral, as well as written, complaints.
The sole question presented is whether “an oral complaint of a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act” is “protected conduct under the [Act's] anti-retaliation provision.” The Act protects employees who have “filed any complaint,” 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3), and interpretation of this phrase “depends upon reading the whole statutory text, considering the purpose and context of the statute, and consulting any precedents or authorities that inform the analysis.” This analysis leads us to conclude that the language of the provision, considered in isolation, may be open to competing interpretations. But considering the provision in conjunction with the purpose and context leads us to conclude that only one interpretation is permissible.
Slip op. at 4.
Several functional considerations indicate that Congress intended the antiretaliation provision to cover oral, as well as written, “complaint[s].” First, an interpretation that limited the provision's coverage to written complaints would undermine the Act's basic objectives. The Act seeks to prohibit “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.” 29 U.S.C. § 202(a). It does so in part by setting forth substantive wage, hour, and overtime standards. It relies for enforcement of these standards, not upon “continuing detailed federal supervision or inspection of payrolls,” but upon “information and complaints received from employees seeking to vindicate rights claimed to have been denied.” And its antiretaliation provision makes this enforcement scheme effective by preventing “fear of economic retaliation” from inducing workers “quietly to accept substandard conditions.”
Slip op. at 7.
The Secretary of Labor has consistently held the view that the words “filed any complaint” cover oral, as well as written, complaints. The Department of Labor articulated that view in an enforcement action filed many years ago... It has subsequently reaffirmed that view in briefs. And more recently it has acted in accordance with that view by creating a hotline to receive oral complaints...
Slip op. at 9.

Justice Breyer wrote the majority opinion. Justice Scalia dissented, with Justice Thomas joining. Justice Kagan did not take part. The opinion is available here.

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