In Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. the United States Supreme Court was asked to decide whether an employee’s oral complaints triggered the anti-retaliation protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act (the “Act”), which sets forth employment rules concerning minimum wages, maximum hours, and overtime pay.  563 U.S. ______ (2011).

The anti-retaliation provision of the Act makes it unlawful

“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 Act], 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).

The Court had to decide whether the statutory term “filed any complaint” included oral as well as written complaints.  Kevin Kasten sued his former employer, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation (“Saint-Gobain”), following his termination for allegedly failing to record his comings and goings on the timeclock.  Kasten argued that he was really terminated in retaliation for making repeated oral complaints about the location of the timeclock.  Saint-Gobain’s timeclock was located between the area where Kasten and other workers put on and took off their work-related protective gear and the area where they performed their assigned tasks.  As a result, Kasten and the other workers did not receive credit for the time it took them to put on and take off their work clothes, which is contrary to the Act’s requirements.  In fact, in a separate lawsuit a District Court in Wisconsin held that Saint-Gobain’s failure to compensate its employees for the time it took to put on and take off work clothes violated the Act.  Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 556 F.Supp.2d 941, 954 (W.D.Wis. 2008).

Kasten repeatedly told Saint-Gobain about the timeclock’s unlawful location via Saint-Gobain’s internal grievance-resolution procedure and raised the issue with his shift supervisor.  Kasten told Saint-Gobain’s human resources manager that the timeclock’s location was illegal, that he was thinking about starting a lawsuit about the timeclock’s placement and that company would lose in court.  Kasten claimed in his lawsuit that it was this activity, and not his failure to use the timeclock, that caused Saint-Gobain to discipline and ultimately terminate him in December, 2006.

The District Court granted Saint-Gobain’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed Kasten’s lawsuit on the ground that the Act did not protect oral complaints.  On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed that the Act did not apply to oral complaints and affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of Kasten’s lawsuit.  The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Kasten’s appeal to determine whether “an oral complaint of a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act is protected conduct under the [Act’s] anti-retaliation provision.”  Kasten, 563 U.S. at p.4.

In analyzing the statutory text, the Court considered some dictionary definitions of “file”, which used of the word “file” in connection with oral material, and common usage of the word by legislators, administrators, and judges, which sometimes use the word when referring to oral statements.  The Court noted that regulations promulgated by federal agencies sometimes permit complaints to be filed orally and that oral filings were a known phenomenon when the Act was passed.  The Court, however, determined that review of the statutory text alone was insufficient to provide a conclusive answer.

The Court next analyzed the Act’s objectives, which are to prohibit labor conditions that are detrimental to the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and the general well-being of workers.  The Act relies upon information and complaints by employees that seek to enforce their rights under the Act.  The Act’s anti-retaliation provision serves to prevent employees from being fearful of economic retaliation and quietly accepting substandard working conditions.

The Court found no evidence in the Act’s legislative history supporting the position that Congress intended to limit the effectiveness of the Act by preventing those employees who cannot read or write from making complaints under the Act.  Limiting complaints under the Act to those made in writing would also prevent governmental agencies from using hotlines, interviews and other oral methods to take employee complaints.  Thus, the Court held, “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.  This standard can be met, however, by oral complaints, as well as by written ones.”  Id. at p.12.

Moreover, the Court noted that the Department of Labor has consistently held that the phrase “filed any complaint” covers oral, as well as written, complaints.  See e.g. Goldberg v. Zenger, 43 CCH LC ¶31,155, pp. 40,985, 40,986 (D.Utah 1961).  More recently, the Department of Labor set up a hotline for the purposes of receiving oral complaints.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has set forth a similar view with regard to oral complaints in its Compliance Manual, Vol. 2, §8-II(B)(1), p. 8-3, and n. 12 (1998).

The Court concluded that the Court of Appeals erred in holding that oral complaints cannot fall within the phrase “filed any complaint” in the Act’s anti-retaliation provision.  As a result, the Court vacated the judgment in favor of Saint-Gobain, reinstated Kasten’s complaint and remanded the case to the District Court for trial.


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