By Martha Keon
The FLSA provides that an employer may not:
discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed 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.
The meaning of the phrase “filed any complaint” has been vigorously disputed in the federal courts, resulting in circuit splits on two issues:
- Does “filed any complaint” protect only complaints to the government or does it also include internal complaints to the employer? The majority view held by the First, Third, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits is that internal complaints to an employer are protected, while the minority view held by the Second and Fourth Circuits is that only complaints to government authorities are protected.
- Does “filed any complaint” mean that the complaint has to be in writing or are unwritten, oral complaints also protected? Following the same general pattern, the Second, Fourth and Seventh Circuits have held that unwritten, oral complaints are not protected, while the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits have protected unwritten, oral complaints.
In light of the Circuit split, the U.S. Supreme Court granted review of the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., and has now issued its opinion.
The Kasten case involved an unwritten, oral complaint to the employer, thus implicating both issues (1) and (2) above. Kevin Kasten worked at a Saint-Gobain manufacturing plant in Wisconsin. Kasten claimed that on several occasions he complained to his supervisors and a Human Resources generalist that the location of the time clocks was illegal because it prevented employees from being paid for time spent donning and doffing their required protective gear, and said that he might file a lawsuit. After frequently being warned about not recording his comings and goings on the time clock, Kasten was terminated. He sued Saint-Gobain, claiming that his employment was terminated in retaliation for his complaints in violation of the FLSA. The Western District of Wisconsin dismissed Kasten’s case, holding that unwritten, oral complaints are not protected activity under the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, holding that while internal complaints to an employer are protected under the FLSA, such complaints must be in writing because the term “filed” implies a writing. The court thus affirmed the dismissal of Kasten’s complaint.
In light of the circuit split surrounding the interpretation of the phrase “filed any complaint,” the Supreme Court granted review. The Court vacated the Seventh Circuit’s decision, holding that unwritten, oral complaints are protected. Justice Breyer (joined by Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Alito and Sotomayor, with Kagan not taking part) held that while the meaning of the phrase “filed any complaint” was ambiguous, considering the purpose and context of the statute, it should be interpreted to include unwritten, oral complaints. The Court reasoned that excluding oral complaints would: (1) undermine the FLSA’s enforcement scheme as the anti-retaliation provision enables employees to report substandard conditions without fear of economic retaliation, (2) disadvantage those with difficulty making requests in writing such as the illiterate, less educated and/or overworked, (3) prevent government agencies from using hotlines, interviews and other oral methods of receiving complaints, and (4) discourage private employers from using informal workplace grievance procedures to secure compliance.
In order to ensure fair notice to the employer, the Court held that the phrase “filed any complaint” contemplates “some degree of formality, certainly to the point where the recipient has been given fair notice that a grievance has been lodged and does, or should, reasonably understand the matter as part of its business concerns.” The Court articulated the following standard: a complaint is “filed” when “a reasonable, objective person would have understood the employee to have put the employer on notice that the employee is asserting statutory rights under the Act.” The complaint “must be sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both the content and context, as an assertion of rights protected by the statute and a call for their protection.”
Surprisingly, the Court declined to comment on whether the FLSA protected only complaints filed with the government or whether complaints to an employer are also protected. The Court reasoned that, while the issue was addressed by the Seventh Circuit, it was not raised by the Company in its opposition to Kasten’s petition for certiorari and there was no need to resolve it in order to decide the oral/written issue. In his dissent, Justice Scalia (joined by Thomas) criticized the majority’s approach, noting that the issue was fairly encompassed within the Company’s opposition to the petition for certiorari, and would have been more logically addressed first. Justice Scalia would have affirmed the dismissal of the complaint on the ground that the plain meaning of “filed any complaint” and its context make clear that the anti-retaliation provision contemplated an official grievance filed with a court or agency, not oral or written complaints to an employer. Thus, the circuit split on whether a complaint must be filed with the government to be protected remains. However, employers are cautioned to tread carefully and be mindful that a majority of the circuit courts have extended the FLSA’s protection to internal company complaints.