The U.S. Supreme Court Makes Life For Employers Even More Difficult --- Verbal Complaints Held To Be Protected Activity Under the Fair Labor Standards Act
On March 22, 2011, the United States Supreme Court held in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., that the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who make verbal, as well as written, complaints regarding a violation of the statute. The Supreme Court did not, however, specify whether a “complaint” must be made to a government agency, or whether an internal complaint is sufficient to trigger the protection of the FLSA.
In Kasten, the plaintiff sued the company for allegedly terminating his employment in retaliation for verbally complaining to company officials about the placement of its time clocks. The Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the plaintiff’s informal complaint did not constitute protected activity under the FLSA. In affirming the District Court’s decision, the Seventh Circuit ruled that the FLSA’s use of the phrase “file any complaint” indicates that the statute only protects written complaints.
The Supreme Court rejected the Seventh Circuit’s interpretation of the phrase “file any complaint,” and held that “considering the purpose and context” of the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provisions, both verbal and written complaints should be protected. The Court further provided that the following standard should be considered when determining whether an employee has filed a complaint: “[A] complaint is filed when a reasonable, objective person would have understood the employee to have put the employer on notice that [the] employee is asserting statutory rights under the [act].”
In light of this decision, employers can expect an increase in retaliation claims under the FLSA. To protect themselves from such claims, employers should treat potential verbal complaints under the FLSA in the same manner as they would verbal complaints under federal and state anti-discrimination laws.
Specifically, employers should consider: (1) implementing and notifying employees of a complaint procedure for claims of wage and hour violations; (2) training managers and supervisors on how to identify protected complaints; and (3) advising managers and supervisors to consult with Human Resources prior to taking any adverse action against an employee who has previously complained.