Thursday, October 14, 2010

Does FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision cover oral complaints? The Kasten v. Saint-Gobain oral argument

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics (transcript available from Supreme Court’s website), which asks the following question: Is an oral complaint of a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act protected conduct under the anti-retaliation provision, 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3)?

By way of background, the 7th Circuit held that the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision—which provides that an employer cannot “discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint”—covers intra-company complaints, but they must be in writing: “[T]he natural understanding of the phrase ‘file any complaint’ requires the submission of some writing to an employer….” In comparison to Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision—which broadly covers any employee who “opposed” any unlawful practice—the FLSA narrowly requires that employees file a complaint for coverage. Thus, Kasten will likely come down to the issue of whether making an oral complaint is considered a filing.

The plaintiffs’ bar may hold out hope that the Roberts Court, which has favored retaliation claims in the past, will extend the FLSA’s narrow language to cover oral complaints. Based on yesterday’s oral argument, I would not hold out much hope for a reversal. The liberal wing of the Court was concerned about the ability of immigrants and low-wage workers to enforce their rights through effective written complaints. But, even Justices Breyer and Sotomayor expressed concerned about an employee who, at a cocktail party, sees a supervisor and complains of a wage-and-hour violation.

The following exchange (which was the best of the argument), likely is the lynchpin to the decision:

     Justice Scalia: My problem is, I cannot decide on -- on the question of whether filing means filing only in writing or also includes verbal filing, without resolving that other question. That is to say, if indeed the complaint has to be quote, “filed” with the government, I’m inclined to think that an oral complaint pursuant to procedures established by the agency which permit an oral complaint, even a complaint by telephone that would be okay.

     But my goodness, if it applies to private employers as well including employers that have no grievance procedures, including employers who have employees who go to cocktail parties, I am -- I am very disinclined to think that it -- that it could mean an oral complaint in -- in that context….

     Justice Sotomayor: What does file -- what is the meaning of “filed”?

     A: It means to submit or lodge.

     Justice Scalia: So you are filing your argument right now. Now come on, people don't talk like that…. That -- that -- that is absurd. You are not filing an argument right now. Nobody uses the language that way….

     Justice Kennedy: I would like to go back to the question Justice Scalia filed just earlier.

Reading the tea leaves, I predict a win for the employer based on the narrow language of the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision. I also expect a strongly-worded dissent based on the policy implications for workers incapable of making effective written complaints.

For more coverage of the Kasten oral argument, I recommend the insightful thoughts of Paul Secunda at the Workplace Prof Blog.

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