Kasten v. Saint-Gobain: Scope of FLSA Protected Activity

In Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 563 U.S. 1 (2011), the Supreme Court held that the anti-retaliation provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act protects employees who make oral (as well as written) complaints that their employer violated the FLSA.

Facts

Kasten worked for Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics. He complained orally to his superiors that the company located its timeclocks between the area where Kasten and his co-workers put on (and removed) their work-related protective gear and the area where they carried out their job duties. This location, Kasten complained, prevented workers from receiving credit for the time they spent putting on and taking off their work clothes — contrary to the requirements of the FLSA. Kasten complained only orally and did not make a written complaint. Saint-Gobain fired him. Id. at 5-6.

Kasten then sued his former employer, alleging that Saint-Gobain violated the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision by terminating him for complaining orally about the legality of the location of the timeclocks. The trial court granted summary judgment for the employer, holding that the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision covered only written complaints and did not cover oral complaints. The Seventh Circuit affirmed and Kasten appeals.

The Court’s Decision

The FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision makes it unlawful for employers “to 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 FLSA], or has testified or is about to testify in such proceeding, or has served or is about to serve on an industry committee.” 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3) (emphasis added).

The Court held that the scope of the statutory term “filed any complaint” includes oral, as well as written, complaints — and therefore the FLSA prohibits retaliation against employees who complain orally about violations of the wage and hour law.

As an initial matter, the Court cited its decision in Dolan v. Postal Service, 546 U.S. 481, 486 (2013) for the principle that proper interpretation “depends upon reading the whole statutory text, considering the [statute’s] purpose and context …, and consulting any precedents or authorities that inform the analysis.” The Court further explained that the text at issue — “filed any complaint” — taken alone, could not provide a conclusive answer as to whether it included oral complaints. Some dictionary definitions of “filed” contemplated a writing; others permitted using “file” in conjunction with oral material.

The Court noted that in addition to dictionary definitions, state statutes and federal regulations sometimes contemplate oral filings, and an analysis of contemporaneous judicial usage shows that when the FLSA was passed in 1938 oral filings were a known phenomenon. And even if “filed,” taken in isolation, might suggest a narrow interpretation limited to writings, the remainder of the phrase — “any complaint” — suggested a broad interpretation that would include an oral complaint. Thus, the Court concluded that the phrase “filed any complaint,” taken by itself, was not clear. Id. at 5-11.

Nor could the FLSA’s other references to “filed” resolve the question of whether oral complaints were included. Some parts of the FLSA involve filed material that is almost always written; others specifically require a writing, and others leave the oral/written question unresolved. Because the text at issue, taken alone, might, or might not, encompass oral complaints, the Court had to look to other methods of interpretation. Id. at 5-11.

The Court observed that several “functional considerations” indicated that Congress intended the anti-retaliation provision to cover both oral and written complaints. Id. at 11. First, looking to the FLSA’s purposes, the Court noted that a narrow interpretation excluding oral complaints would undermine the law’s basic objective: 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). The Court had previously observed that the FLSA relies for enforcement of its substantive standards on “information and complaints received from employees,” Mitchell v. Robert DeMario Jewelry, Inc., 361 U.S. 288, 292 (1960), and its anti-retaliation provision makes the enforcement scheme effective by preventing “fear of economic retaliation” from inducing workers “quietly to accept substandard conditions[.]” Ibid. With that purpose in mind, the Court noted that limiting the provision’s scope to written complaints could have the undesirable result of preventing Government agencies from using hotlines, interviews, and other oral methods to receive complaints. 563 U.S. at 11-14.

Second, the Court determined that in light of the delegation of enforcement powers to federal agencies, the agencies’ views about the meaning of the phrase “filed any complaint” should be given weight. The Secretary of Labor, charged with enforcing the FLSA, has long interpreted “filed any complaint” as covering both oral and written complaints. Similarly, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with enforcing other employment laws, has a similar view that oral complaints are protected complaints. The Court held that these views were reasonable and consistent with the FLSA. And the length of time the Secretary of Labor held its position suggested it was the result of careful consideration, not “post hoc rationalizatio[n].” Id. at 14-16 (quoting Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Assn. of United States, Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 50 (1983)).

Finally, Saint-Gobain made an alternative argument that the anti-retaliation provision only covered official complaints to government agencies or in court, and therefore did not protect internal complaints (written or oral) to employers. The Court declined to address this argument, however, because it was not properly raised in the certiorari briefs and did not need to be addressed to resolve the oral/written complaint issue. Id. at 17.

Scalia dissented on that point, arguing that the language of anti-retaliation provision, in light of the FLSA’s other references to “filing,” only protected official grievances filed with a court or an agency, not oral complaints — or even formal, written complaints — from an employee to an employer. Id. at 18-26.

Analysis

Kasten clarified that an oral complaint about an employer’s FLSA violation is protected activity under the FLSA. The law therefore prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who complaint about violations of the federal wage and hour law, regardless of whether the employee complains orally or in writing.

This blog was also posted to TimCoffieldAttorney.com.

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