Today, we discuss the brand new Supreme Court opinion of Kasten v. Stain-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 2011 WL 977061 (U.S. March 22, 2011). In Kasten, the Supreme Court held that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938′s (“FLSA”) anti-retaliation provision applies to oral complaints as well as written ones.
Kasten involved a factory worker for a plastics manufacturer. The employer had a mechanism whereby the time clock for workers to punch in and out of work was located right at the worksite, precluding workers from getting credit for time donning and doffing their uniforms and protective gear. Plaintiff Kasten filed a separate collection action for alleged FLSA violations for unpaid overtime based on this setup. Moreover, Kasten complained verbally to his supervisors about the setup, stating that it denied he and other employees overtime because time spent donning and doffing work clothes took significant time each day. He was terminated sometime after his alleged complaints.
Kasten lost his retaliation claim on summary judgment before the District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin because, according to the District Court, complaints regarding illegal working conditions under the FLSA only were subject to retaliation claims if they were in writing. Indeed, the statutory language protects an employee who has “filed any complaint.” On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed. In a 6-2 opinion, the Supreme Court reversed. After engaging in a lengthy review of statutory construction, the Court ultimately concluded that “filing” a complaint can be achieved orally if 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.” Summary judgment was reversed and the case was remanded back to the trial court.
The potential ramifications of this decision is huge. Retaliation is among the most difficult cases to defend in all of federal employment discrimination law. This decision potentially provides a pseudo-shield to all covered employees under the FLSA who make verbal complaints about unpaid overtime or minimum wage violations, or even uncovered workers who merely complain that they should be covered. As an attorney who predominantly represents employers, this concerns me a great deal.