Supreme Court Expands Wage and Hour Retaliation Claims

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of an employee last week in Kasten V. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp, which involves a retaliation claim based on verbal complaints of wage and hour violations.

The plaintiff, an employee at Saint-Gobain, complained verbally several times about the placement of the time clock at Saint-Gobain being unlawful.  The time clock was placed beyond the area where workers were required to dress in protective clothing thus they were not paid for the time they donned and doffed their protective work gear.  A lower court ruled in a related case that the placement of the time clock was indeed a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  In this case, the Court considered the use of the phrase “filed any complaint” and whether it allowed for a complaint about a violation to be filed orally or if it strictly limited complaints to be filed in writing.  Justice Breyer thoroughly defined the word “file” and “filed” only to conclude that what really mattered was the spirit of the text.  Breyer found that the intended purpose of the FLSA was to protect employees many of which, at the time the law was written, were illiterate and incapable of filing complaints in writing.  The Court concluded that employees may file complaints orally if the complaint is “sufficiently clear and detailed [enough] for a reasonable employer to understand it.”  The Court, however, did not address an equally important issue about whether a complaint must be filed with a government agency, not simply an employer, to fall within the standards of the FLSA anti-retaliation provision.

This case is a partial win for employees, granting them further protection against employment discrimination under the FLSA.  (More coverage here.)

UPDATE: Jonathan Harkavy’s commentary on this case can be found here from his overview of the Supreme Court’s employment law decisions during their 2010 session.