Thursday, January 3, 2013

Lactation rights case teaches valuable lesson on responding to employee complaints


Believing that her employer, Roche Surety & Casualty Co., had deprived her of her right under the Fair Labor Standards Act for a time and place to express breast milk, Danielle Miller put her request in writing via an email to her supervisor. She claimed that the company retaliated against her after she emailed her supervisor with her request. That email stated:

Shannon, I’m scheduled tomorrow all day at the bail office, so therefore, I need to know where I can use my breast pump at and who will cover the office while I’m doing it. I’ll need to be able to do it at least twice while there. Please let me know. Thanks.

In Miller v. Roche Surety & Casualty Co. (11th Cir. 12/26/12) [pdf], the appellate court concluded that Miller had not filed a complaint sufficient to raise the protections of the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision:

Although the filing of a complaint … need not be in the form of an official complaint, … or even be in writing, some degree of formality is required in order that the employer has fair notice that an employee is lodging a grievance….

Neither the context nor content of Miller’s email put Roche on notice that she was lodging a grievance. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding the email would not have informed a reasonable employer that Miller was filing a complaint. Before sending the email, Miller had never asked for, or been denied, a time or place to express breast milk. She was given breaks at her leisure without question or criticism. Miller decided to express breast milk in her office without notifying any Roche supervisors. She did not complain or ask for a different location….

This case appears to have been an easy call for the 11th Circuit, since no one could possible interpret Miller’s email as a complaint. Nevertheless, this case teaches employers an important lesson: respond when an employee raises an issue, no matter how silly or trivial it may seem. Although the opinion is vague, it is safe to assume that the genesis of Miller’s lawsuit was a lack of any response to her email. Could this company have staved off a lawsuit by a simple reply to the email? Next time an employee communicates an issue with you, think about whether it is worth the risk to let the concern go un-addressed.

[Hat tip: Wage & Hour Law Update and Joe’s HR & Benefits Blog]

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