Mar 24, 2011

Supreme Court: Oral Complaints Trigger Retaliation Protection

In yet another win for an employee claiming retaliation, the Supreme Court decided this week that an employee's oral complaints of violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act could protect that employee from employer retaliation. (The case is called Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation.)

Kevin Kasten claimed that he had made numerous oral complaints within the company -- to his supervisor, his lead operator, the operations manager, and human resources personnel -- about the location of the company's time clocks, which were situated between where the employees had to don their protective gear and where the employees actually had to work. This meant that employees were not paid for the time they spend putting on their gear at the beginning of their shift and taking it off at the end, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). 

In a separate lawsuit, a federal court found in Kasten's favor on the underlying complaint about the time clocks. The lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court was about Kasten's retaliation claim: He alleged that he was disciplined and ultimately fired because of his complaints to the company. The company countered that Kasten was fired because he refused to use the time clocks. It also argued that Kasten couldn't claim retaliation, because the FLSA protects only employees who "file" a complaint, which must be done in writing. 

The Supreme Court found for Kasten. Consulting the dictionary, other provisions of the statute, and other sources, the Court found that the term "file" doesn't necessarily require a document. The Court also found that requiring employees to put complaints in writing would thwart the statute's protective purpose by discouraging complaints from those who are less educated, illiterate, or simply overworked. On the other hand, the Court agreed with the employer that the employee's complaint had to be sufficient to put the company on notice of the problem in order to trigger the law's retaliation provisions. So the Court came up with this standard:

To fall within the scope of the antiretaliation provision, a complaint 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 their protection.  

In an odd twist, the Court explicitly declined to address whether the employee must make a complaint to a governmental agency to be protected, even though the case involved an employee who complained only to the employer. (In other words, if the employee must complain to an agency, Kasten doesn't have a retaliation claim.) Apparently, the employer hadn't kept this argument alive properly on appeal, so the Court wasn't required to consider it. And in the majority opinion, Justice Breyer argued that there was no need for the Court to resolve this question, because it wasn't necessary to the Court's decision in the case. Still, it's a fairly large issue to leave undecided, especially when the claims of the actual employee in the case depend on how it's resolved.