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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Supreme Court Ruling Protects Employees who Verbally Complain About Illegal Employer Practices

The Supreme Court held yesterday in Kasten v. Saint Gobain Performance Plastics that anti-retaliation provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) apply to employees who make verbal complaints to their employers about possible violations of labor laws as well as those who make written complaints. In this case, an employee was fired after making repeated verbal complaints that the company’s practice of not allowing employees to clock in for time spent donning required protective gear was illegal.

The court looked to functional considerations, stating that “an interpretation that limited the provision’s coverage to written complaints would undermine the Act’s basic objectives,” which prohibit “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.”

The opinion also notes the high illiteracy rates among the poor in the years prior to passage of the FLSA and asked rhetorically: “Why would Congress want to limit the enforcement scheme’s effectiveness by inhibiting use of the Act’s complaint procedure by those who would find it difficult to reduce their complaints to writing, particularly illiterate, less educated, or overworked workers?” The court added that limiting the scope “would also take needed flexibility from those charged with the Act’s enforcement” by preventing the use of hotlines, interviews and other methods of receiving verbal complaints. The court also found the views of federal enforcement agencies to be persuasive, noting that both the Secretary of Labor and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission believe that verbal complaints are covered.

The court recognized the need to protect employers, stating that the FLSA applies only to statements that give “fair notice that an employee is making a complaint that could subject the employer to a later claim of retaliation.” Nonetheless, the court held that verbal statements can 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.”

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