Supreme Court Continues Expansive Interpretation of Retaliation Claims
On March 22, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held that oral complaints are protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) anti-retaliation provisions. In Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance, the Court resolved a split among the circuits as to whether the statutory term “filed a complaint” found in the FLSA encompasses oral, as well as written, complaints. A 6-2 majority found that, while the language of the statute may be ambiguous, the intent of the FLSA compelled the conclusion that oral complaints are indeed protected. This should come as no surprise to anyone, given how the Court has ruled in a number of cases involving retaliation claims over the past few years.
In Kasten, the employee claimed that he verbally “raised a concern” with his shift supervisor about the location of the employer’s time clocks, which he felt prevented employees from being paid for time they spent donning and doffing protective gear in violation of the FLSA. Kasten also alleged that he told his lead operator he was “thinking about starting a lawsuit about the placement of the time clocks,” and he informed an HR employee that the company would lose if he challenged the location of the time clocks in court.
The company eventually terminated Kasten’s employment, after repeated warnings, for failing to record his comings and goings on the company’s time clocks. Kasten, not surprisingly, contended that he was discharged because he complained orally to company officials about the location of the time clocks. The district court entered summary judgment in the company’s favor, holding that the FLSA does not protect oral complaints, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed the decision.
The Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit’s ruling, holding that oral complaints are indeed protected. In arriving at this conclusion, the Court gave deference to the position taken by the Secretary of Labor that the phrase “filed a complaint” encompasses oral complaints, as well as written ones. The Department of Labor articulated this position in an enforcement action years ago, and it has reaffirmed this position in subsequent briefs.
Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer set forth the minimum requirements that an oral complaint must meet in order to protect the person who made it, namely that it “must be sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of rights protected by the statute and a call for the protection.” The Court held that this standard may be met by both oral and written complaints.
As noted above, the Kasten decision marks another expansion of the protections afforded to employees who come forward to report or complain about potential violations of the laws intended to protect them.
Most recently, in January 2011, the Supreme Court found in favor of a man who claimed that he was fired because his fiancée filed a sex discrimination claim against their mutual employer (Thompson v. North American Stainless). In a previous term, the Court held that an employee may bring a retaliation claim under Section 1981 (CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries) and that a federal employee may sue for retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, despite the lack of the term “retaliation” in either statute (Gomez-Perez v. Potter). The Court also found in favor of an employee who claimed that she was fired after answering questions relating to another employee’s sex harassment claim (Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County) and held that retaliation under Title VII encompasses any employer action that “well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination” (Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White).