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Federal court defines limits for FLSA retaliation lawsuits

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in Compensation and Benefits,Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the primary federal law governing various wage-and-hour-related issues. The FLSA establishes the federal minimum wage rate, sets the standards for overtime and restricts the employment of minors.

Given the FLSA’s broad coverage, most businesses that are engaged in commerce or the production of goods must comply with it.

As with many other federal employment laws, the FLSA includes a retaliation provision that protects workers who complain that their employer has violated the law. Until recently, it wasn’t clear what kinds of complaints actually triggered the FLSA’s protections. That’s now changed.

Clocked out … permanently

In Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics (No. 08-2820, 7th Cir., 2009), the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals—the federal appellate court covering Illinois—established specific limits on the FLSA’s retaliation provision.

The case involved an employee who worked in one of Saint-Gobain’s manufacturing facilities. Kevin Kasten was required to clock in and out of his shift by punching a timecard at a time clock. Kasten had recurring problems properly clocking in and out.

Saint-Gobain followed its disciplinary procedures and orally counseled Kasten. Then it issued a written warning, followed by a suspension. The suspension notice warned Kasten that this would be the last step in the disciplinary process and that another timecard violation could lead to his termination.

When Kasten violated the timecard policy again, Saint-Gobain fired him.

Retaliation for complaining?

Kasten filed a lawsuit claiming the termination violated the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA because he had orally complained to managers that the locations of the facility’s time clocks were “illegal.” He said they prevented employees from receiving payment for the time spent putting on their protective gear before their shifts began and taking it off at the end of the workday.

Kasten also alleged that, in a meeting that followed his last timecard policy violation, he again orally told management that he believed the time clocks to be illegally located and that “if he challenged the company in court regarding the location of the clocks the company would lose.”

What kind of complaint?

Saint-Gobain denied Kasten’s allegations in the lawsuit. It also argued that the retaliation provision of the FLSA did not apply to Kasten because his complaints were only oral, while the FLSA required them to be in writing.

The FLSA says “it shall be unlawful for any person … to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint… .”

The court held that the term “any complaint” in the statute’s provision was broad enough to encompass and protect any complaints employees make externally to outside agencies and also the complaints made internally in the workplace.

However, the 7th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling in favor of Saint-Gobain, and held that the term “has filed”—in both its dictionary and ordinary meanings—implies a written, not an oral complaint.

Because Kasten made only oral complaints, the court held that he did not engage in a protected activity that would trigger the protection of the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision. It upheld the employer’s decision to terminate him.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

BK April 20, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Overruled by SCOTUS — 131 S. Ct. 1325

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