Are Oral Complaints Protected Under The FLSA’s Anti-Retaliation Provision?

Yes. In a decision issued March 22, 2011, the United States Supreme Court held that an oral complaint of an alleged violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) is protected conduct under the Act’s anti-retaliation provision in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., No. 09-834, 563 U.S. ____ (2011).

The plaintiff in the case, Kevin Kasten, alleged that his employer Saint-Gobain violated the FLSA by placing its timeclocks in a location that prevented workers from receiving credit for the time they spent putting on and taking off their work clothes. In his anti-retaliation lawsuit, Kasten claimed that he repeatedly made oral reports of the alleged unlawful timeclock location to various Saint-Gobain personnel and that he was discharged because of these oral complaints.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court considered the basic objectives of the FLSA. The Court found that for enforcement, the FLSA relies upon information and complaints received from employees seeking to vindicate their rights. The Court questioned: “Why would Congress want to limit the enforcement scheme’s effectiveness by inhibiting use of the Act’s complaint procedure by those who find it difficult to reduce their complaints to writing, particularly illiterate, less educated or overworked workers?” The Court also found it persuasive that the Department of Labor has consistently held the view that the words “filed any complaint” include oral complaints.

Saint-Gobain argued that the employer must have fair notice that an employee is making a complaint that could subject the employer to a later claim of retaliation. In response to this argument, the Court clarified that “to fall within the scope of the antiretaliation provision, a complaint [whether written or oral] must 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.”