Resolving a lower court conflict regarding the scope of the anti-retaliation provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Supreme Court ruled that an employee’s oral complaints were sufficient to trigger the FLSA’s protections. Kasten v. Saint-Groban Performance Plastics Corp., __ U.S. __, No. 09-834 (March 22, 2011).

The case arose when an employee was fired after making oral complaints to his employer about the placement of a timeclock. The employee sued, alleging retaliation in violation of the FLSA, which forbids employers “to discharge…any employee because such employee has filed any complaint” alleging a violation of the Act. 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). The lower courts dismissed the claim because the employee’s oral complaints were not “filed” and so could not trigger the FLSA’s antiretaliation clause.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the scope of the phrase “filed any complaint” includes oral as well as written complaints. Finding that interpretation of that phrase “depends on reading the whole statutory text, considering the [statute’s] purpose and context,” the Court noted that the word “filed” has “different relevant meanings in different contexts,” including dictionaries, statutes and regulations, judicial decisions, and other provisions of the Act itself.

The Court additionally found that a narrow interpretation of the provision would undermine the FLSA’s basic objective of prohibiting “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 also found that an oral complaint can fulfill the objective of providing fair notice to the employer, so long as the complaint is “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,” as required by the FLSA.

The Court reasoned further that its holding was consistent with the Secretary of Labor’s “reasonable” view that “filed any complaint” covers oral as well as written complaints, as well as with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Compliance Manual. The Court remanded the case to the district court for consideration of whether the employee’s complaint in this case satisfied the FLSA’s notice requirement.

In a dissent joined by Justice Thomas, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision protects only those official grievances made to judicial or administrative bodies. Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the decision of the case.

This is the latest in a series of Supreme Court decisions that have broadly interpreted anti-retaliation provisions that protect employee grievances. In light of this ruling, employers should carefully review all FLSA complaints before initiating any adverse actions. Employers should also focus on FLSA compliance initiatives, such as training managers and establishing a formal system to review complaints. Employers need to continue to properly train managers on how to avoid such claims and to carefully document the reasons for taking disciplinary action.