The U.S. Supreme Court decided today that the anti-retaliation provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which prohibits employers from “discharging . . . any employee because such employee has filed any complaint” alleging a violation of the Act, protects oral, as well as written, complaints by employees.

In Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., No. 09-834 (March 22, 2011) (pdf), the plaintiff claimed he was wrongfully discharged in retaliation for orally complaining to supervisors about the location of company timeclocks.  (In a related case, a U.S. District Court previously found the location of the company’s timeclocks unlawful because it prevented workers from receiving credit for the time they spent donning and doffing their mandatory work clothes.  See Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 556 F. Supp. 2d 941, 954 (W.D. Wis. 2008).)   In considering the employer’s motion for summary judgment, the U.S. District Court accepted as true the plaintiff’s allegation that he repeatedly complained about the location of the timeclocks.  The trial court nonetheless granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, on the ground that such oral complaints were not covered by the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision, 29 U.S.C. §215(a)(3), because oral complaints could not be “filed,” as §215(a)(3) requires.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, however, finding that employee complaints alleging violations of the FLSA need not be in writing to receive anti-retaliation protection.  In a 6-2 decision authored by Justice Breyer, the Court considered the statutory phrase “filed any complaint” to be susceptible to a broad interpretation that would include oral complaints.  Reasoning that a narrower interpretation limited to written complaints would not further the remedial purpose of the Act, the majority concluded that oral complaints could be “filed” for purpose of anti-retaliation protection if properly made.  Thus, the Court held that if an oral complaint is “sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of [employees’] rights protected by the statute and a call for their protection,” such an oral complaint may be protected by the FLSA.  (Slip op. at 12.)

Justice Scalia dissented, arguing that, in the context of the FLSA, the plain meaning of the phrase “filed any complaint” refers to written complaints filed with a government agency, and neither oral complaints nor complaints of any kind to an employer, as opposed to the government.  Justice Thomas joined in the dissent.