4th Circuit Rules that Internal Complaints are Protected Activities Under FLSA’s Anti-Retaliation Provision

In Minor v. Bostwick Laboratories, Inc., Kathy Minor was hired by Bostwick Laboratories as a medical technologist on December 24, 2007. She received satisfactory or above average ratings at her only performance review on April 30, 2008, just twelve days before her firing. On May 6, 2008, Minor and several co-workers met with Bostwick’s chief operating officer, Bill Miller. The employees called the meeting to report overtime violations to Miller. Specifically, Minor informed Miller that her supervisor, Dawn Webber, routinely altered employees’ time sheets to eliminate overtime pay. Miller told the group that he would look into the allegations. The following Monday, May 12, Bostwick terminated Minor’s employment. Miller and the HR manager claimed that the reason for Minor’s firing was that there was “too much conflict with [her] supervisors and the relationship just [was not] working.” Minor filed suit for FLSA retaliation, but the district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss.

The Fourth Circuit began its analysis by reviewing last year’s Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 131S. Ct. 1325 (2011), in which the Supreme Court held that oral complaints could constitute protected activity under FLSA. Because FLSA’s purpose required a broad interpretation of the anti-retaliation provision, and because it gave some weight to the positions of the Secretary of Labor and EEOC, the Supreme Court concluded that oral complaints could qualify as protected activity. The Supreme Court, though, expressly declined to address the question of whether an internal complaint could qualify as protected activity. This issue had not been previously addressed by the Fourth Circuit.

The Court looked at the language of Section 215(a)(3), specifically its coverage when an employee “filed any complaint,” and found it to be ambiguous here. Functionally, the Court recognized that failing to protect internal complaints would discourage the use of workplace grievance procedures to secure compliance with FLSA. And, it could have the perverse result of encouraging employers to fire employees who believe they have been treated illegally before they file a formal complaint. Thus, the EEOC and Department of Labor consistently advanced the plaintiff’s position. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the purpose of FLSA required internal complaints to be protected by Section 215(a)(3), joining most of the other circuits. To guarantee that internal complaints provide sufficient notice to employers, the Court held that an internal complaint 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.” Minor’s complaint met that test, so the Court reversed.