Employees are now three-for-three in Supreme Court employment law cases this term, now that the High Court has ruled that an employee’s Fair Labor Standards Act complaints don’t have to be written to be protected from retaliation by their employers.
The court ruled 6-2 that employee Kevin Kasten’s oral complaints about his employer’s time clocks were just as valid as a written complaint. The court handed down its opinion in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics (09-834, U.S. Supreme Court, 2011) on March 22.
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Kevin Kasten worked a factory job for Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics. He 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.
Kasten sued, claiming the termination violated the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA. He said he had orally complained to managers that the locations of the facility’s time clocks were “illegal.” He said they prevented employees from being paid for the time spent putting on their protective gear before their shifts began and taking it off at the end of the workday.
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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.”
The basis of his lawsuit was that his complaint was protected activity, and that his firing amounted to retaliation for complaining.
But Saint-Gobain argued that the retaliation provision of the FLSA didn't 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… .”
After the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case, it ruled that the term “has filed” 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.
That's when Kasten appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. The case now returns to a lower court for trial.
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