U.S. Supreme Court: Labor Complaints May Be Filed Orally

WASHINGTON, D.C. - (Mealey's) The Fair Labor Standards Act's (FLSA) anti-retaliation provision applies to complaints that are filed orally and written, the U.S. Supreme Court majority ruled March 22 (Kevin Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation, No. 09-834, U.S. Sup.). 

"A narrow interpretation would undermine the Act's basic objective, which is to prohibit 'labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers,' 29 U.S.C. §202(a)," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority. 

However, the majority declined to consider an alternate argument by the employer in the present case that the FLSA anti-retaliation provision applies only to complaints filed with the government.   

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. and Sonia Sotomayor joined in the majority opinion.   

Kevin Kasten worked at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.'s Portage, Wis., facility.  On Feb. 13, 2006, Kasten received a verbal warning for failure to properly clock in and out.  Kasten received written warnings for the same violation on Aug. 31, 2006, and Nov. 10, 2006. 

Between October and December 2006, Kasten claimed that he lodged a number of complaints with his supervisor regarding the location of the company's time clocks.  He claimed that the location prevented employees from being paid for time spent donning and doffing protective gear.  Saint-Gobain claimed that Kasten never complained about the clock locations. 

Kasten was suspended Dec. 6, 2006, for again violating the company's time-clock policy and was terminated five days later. 

Kasten sued Saint-Gobain in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, alleging that he was terminated in retaliation for his complaints about the placement of the time clocks.  Judge Barbara B. Crabb granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment, finding that Kasten never "filed any complaint" about the location of the time clocks.  The Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Crabb's ruling, finding that FLSA complaints must be written. 

Kasten petitioned the Supreme Court in January 2010. 

Dissenting, Justice Antonin Scalia opined that Kasten's suit fails because the FLSA's anti-retaliation provision does not cover any sort of complaints to an employer.  "The plain meaning of the critical phrase and the context in which [it] appears make clear that the retaliation provision contemplates an official grievance filed with a court or an agency, not oral complaints - or even formal, written complaints - from an employee to an employer," he opined.   

Justice Clarence Thomas joined in the entire dissent except a single footnote.   

Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case. 

[Editor's Note:  Full coverage will be in the April issue of Mealey's Litigation Report: Employment Law.  In the meantime, the opinion is available at www.mealeysonline.com or by calling the Customer Support Department at 1-800-833-9844.  Document #73-110408-003Z.  For all of your legal news needs, please visit www.lexisnexis.com/mealeys.] 

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