Listen Carefully: Oral Complaints Are Valid Under FLSA says Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court recently held that oral complaints regarding Fair Labor Standard Act (FLSA) violations are protected under the anti-retaliation provision under the FLSA.  In Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., the Court resolved a  conflict among jurisdictions regarding whether oral complaints were sufficient under the FLSA.

In this case, Plaintff Kevin Kasten orally complained to Saint-Gobain that the company’s time-clocks were put in a location that prevented them receiving credit for time spent putting on and taking off their work gear — a direct violation of the FLSA.  Kasten purportedly told his shift supervisor, a human resource employee, a human resource manager, his lead operator and his operations manager about the violation.  Saint-Gobain stated that Kasten never made a significant complaint.  Saint-Gobain ultimately terminated Kasten for failure to appropriately record his time.  Kasten filed this lawsuit claiming that he was fired in retaliation for complaining about FLSA violations.

The district court and Seventh Circuit found that oral complaints were not protected under the FLSA.  The Supreme Court reversed.  Through its extensive analysis, the Court determined that limiting the FLSA provisions to written complaints would undermine the Act’s primary objectives — specifically, protecting the “general well-being of workers.” The Court stated that requiring a written complaint would impede the workers the FLSA was designed to protect while also preventing federal agencies from using hotlines, interviews, and other methods of receiving complaints. The Court did state that the complaint must be “sufficiently clear and detailed” in a way which allows a reasonable employer to understand it.

It is clear that employers should always be attentive to complaints made by employees regardless of whether they are oral or written.  Employers should ensure that proper complaint policies and procedures are in place so employee complaints are handled effectively and efficiently.  Employers should pay special attention to oral complaints regarding FLSA violations.  Furthermore, employers should strongly consider management training to prevent adverse actions taken against an employee merely because the employee filed a complaint.

Note: the Court did not expressly consider whether the FLSA anti-retaliation provision includes complaints made only to the employer instead of the Government.  Saint-Gobain argued that the anti-retaliation provision only applies to complaints filed with the Government.  Since Saint-Gobain did not address the issue in its response, the Supreme Court did not address the issue.  Saint-Gobain advanced this argument unsuccessfully in the lower courts.  The Court left open for argument whether the anti-retaliation provision includes complaints made only to private employers.  Yet, without expressly addressing the issue, the Court allowed Kasten’s suit to proceed to trial.  Employers should take complaints seriously regardless of whether they are made to the employer or to the Government.

For more information, please contact Patrick Peters at ppeters@beneschlaw.com or (216) 363-4434.

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