In yet another victory for employees, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that workers do not have to file a written Fair Labor Standards Act complaint against their employer to prove they were terminated in retaliation, Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics.
Plaintiff Kevin Kasten lost his job with Saint-Gobain in Portage, Wis., for repeated time clock violations. Kasten maintained the time clock was against FLSA requirements because it was in an inconvenient location that didn’t give workers credit for the time they spent donning work clothes. Kasten orally complained about the situation to company officials and said he was discharged in retaliation for his complaints.
In a 6-2 decision, the court found Kasten’s oral complaint was sufficient to support a FLSA retaliation claim. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion in the case.
“To fall within the scope of the antiretaliation provision, a complaint must be sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it. … This standard can be met, however, by oral complaints, as well as by written ones,” Justice Breyer wrote.
“I think that [the court’s ruling] is going to make a big difference because it’s a significant affirmation of employee protection,” said Rochester employment law attorney Earl Hall. “A shop-level employee typically brings a complaint to his supervisor and more often than not the supervisor thinks it’s not his job to handle it.”
Hall said the opinion stresses the need for employers to train supervisors.
“It reaffirms an employers’ responsibility to its employees to adequately investigate their complaints,” he said. “It won’t be a defense that they didn’t know they had to deal with it anymore.”
Rochester civil rights attorney Christina Agola echoed that sentiment, stressing that employers should have the mechanisms and supervisor training in place to deal with employee complaints. She also believes New York state courts have recognized the validity of an oral complaint in employee retaliation cases before Kasten v. Saint-Gobain was decided last week.
Hall said even though the court is conservative, the court is aware of employee rights and “there’s a feeling at last that the employee is not going to lose.”
He warned however, that there are still issues of proof and credibility in oral complaints even with the ruling so it is still better for employees to make their complaint in writing.
Buffalo based civil rights attorney Lindy Korn said that when the FLSA was written in 1938, many workers were illiterate.
“A formal complaint isn’t something they could easily have done,” she said. Even though that’s not the case today, Korn noted the protection the court afforded is still needed in a workforce that speaks many different languages.
Justice Breyer continued: “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. …”
Korn agreed: “To do otherwise would discourage compliance. It’s very hard to complain about retaliation because employees have a fear that they’ll be punished again. It takes a very courageous plaintiff to do this.”
The court’s ruling could have broader implications since it could affect other laws with similar language to the FLSA such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Korn said she believes the ruling will impact other statutes in the future.
Hall said plaintiff attorneys were reluctant to take employer retaliation claim cases in the past but the court’s ruling on the validity of oral complaints should change that.