The Supreme Court ruled last month that workers who complain about wage violations to their employer are protected from retaliation under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), regardless of whether those complaints are oral or written. Prior to this ruling in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the question of whether verbal complaints were sufficient to support a FLSA retaliation claim was unsettled law.
The issue began when Plaintiff Kasten, who had worked at the Wisconsin manufacturing plant of Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation, verbally complained to his shift supervisor and managers about the location of the time clocks that recorded his working hours. Kasten pointed out that the clocks were placed in an area far from the dressing room where the employees usually changed in and out of their protective gear, resulting in a loss of recorded time and wages. Kasten submitted his verbal complaint through the company’s formal grievance procedure.When he was later fired for allegedly unrelated reasons, he claimed that his termination had actually been an act of retaliation. The lawsuit, however, was dismissed when the district court judge ruled that FLSA anti-retaliation provisions did not cover oral complaints. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago agreed.
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that oral complaints do fall within the scope of the FLSA's anti-retaliation provisions, which forbid employers "to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint…" Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer noted that the word "filed" sometimes includes complaints submitted verbally. While not all oral complaints may count, Breyer explained that a valid complaint from an employee—whether verbal or written—is one that is "sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it … as an assertion of rights protected by the statute and a call for their protection." The Court reasoned that narrowing the interpretation of the provision to exclude oral complaints would undermine the effectiveness of the FLSA, the enforcement of which relies heavily on whistleblowing employees rather than "continuing detailed federal supervision or inspection of payrolls."
In light of this Supreme Court ruling on the validity of oral complaints, the burgeoning number of anti-retaliation lawsuits in recent years is certain to continue and will likely increase. This case further underscores the need for employers to have the mechanisms and supervisory training in place to effectively address employee complaints, whether verbal or written.