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Supreme Court Says Oral Complaint Triggers FLSA's Anti-Retaliation Protections

    Client Alerts
  • March 25, 2011

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are prohibited from retaliating against an employee who complains about wage payment issues. Some employers adopt policies requiring that all complaints be submitted in writing, often for the purpose of specifying the employee's exact grievances. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the anti-retaliation provisions of the FLSA are triggered when an employee makes either an oral or written complaint to his or her employer.

In Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., the plaintiff told his supervisor that he was considering a lawsuit against the company because its placement of the time clock did not allow payment of time spent donning and doffing protective clothing. He alleged that he was terminated as a result of the oral complaint.

The Seventh Circuit dismissed the retaliation claim, citing language in the FLSA that ties its anti-retaliation protections to employees who "file" complaints with their employers. The defendant contended that this language means that in order to be protected from retaliation, the employee must make a more formal complaint to the employer.

The Supreme Court rejected this reasoning, reversing the lower court's decision. The 6-2 majority concluded that as long as the complaint is sufficiently clear and detailed enough for the employer to understand, it may be protected under the FLSA. Nothing in the statute requires that the complaint be submitted in writing.

This decision continues a string of Court decisions that expansively read anti-retaliation provisions of federal employment laws. The Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected narrow readings of these laws in favor of protections for employees who exercise their legal rights.

For procedural reasons, the Court declined to consider the defendant's contentions that the FLSA's retaliation provisions only cover employees who have made a complaint to a governmental agency. For now, employers should understand that any form of complaint may trigger these protections, even if the employer requires or prefers that they be submitted in writing.