Just this morning, the US Supreme Court issued its decision in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., and ruled that an oral complaint is protected from retaliation under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). By reaching this decision, the high Court concluded that the statutory phrase “filed any complaint” as used in the FLSA includes oral, as well as written, complaints. The Court’s decision resolved a split among different federal circuits (and agreed with what had been the law in the 9th Circuit since 1999.)
Specifically, the FLSA contains an anti-retaliation that makes it unlawful for employers:
to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to [the Act], or has testified or is about to testify in such proceeding, or has served or is about to serve on an industry committee.
In addressing whether the phrase “filed any complaint” includes an oral complaint, the Court opined that the word “filed” has different relevant meanings in different contexts. As an example, the Court noted that some dictionary definitions of the word contemplate a writing, whereas other dictionaries “permit the use of the word ‘file’ in conjunction with oral material.” The Court then stated that this meant that dictionary definitions of the word “file” do not necessarily limit the scope of the phrase to written complaints. The Court also noted that some other laws have used the word “file” in conjunction with oral statements, and that regulations promulgated by various federal agencies sometimes permit complaints to be filed orally.
Additionally, the Court reasoned that the purpose of the FLSA would not be met if its anti-retaliation provisions applied only to written complaints. To support this reasoning, the Court asked the rhetorical question of “Why would Congress want to limit the enforcement scheme’s effectiveness by inhibiting use of the Act’s complaint procedure by those who would find it difficult to reduce their complaints to writing, particularly illiterate, less educated, or overworked workers?” The Court also reasoned that limiting the anti-retaliation provisions to written complaints would prevent Government agencies from using hotlines, interviews, and other oral methods of receiving complaints.
Based upon this reasoning, the Court ruled that the phrase “filed any complaint” under the FLSA includes the use of oral complaints.
It appears that the Court’s decision was more “result-based” than “law-based.” First, to reason that the FLSA protects against retaliation for oral complaints because the word “file” is not “necessarily limited to written complaints” is a bit of a stretch. Additionally, although the Court is correct that other laws permit the filing of oral complaints, the laws cited by the Court are different from the FLSA because they expressly provide that a complaint may be filed orally (the FLSA contains no such language.) Finally, the Court’s reasoning regarding illiterate or less-educated individuals, or the Government’s use of hotlines and interviews, indicates that the Court was basing its decision on the result it wanted to achieve, and not on the specific language of the FLSA.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court is the final decision-maker on this issue, and the Kasten decision is now the law of the land. I should also note that although this decision resolved a split among several different federal circuits, it doesn’t change the law in Hawaii. Specifically, in a case called Lambert v. Ackerley, the 9th Circuit had previously ruled that oral complaints made to a supervisor were protected from retaliation under the FLSA. Therefore, the Kasten decision really just means that oral complaints are still protected in the 9th Circuit (which includes Hawaii), and employers should continue to take caution when receiving any type of oral complaints under the FLSA.
You can read a copy of the Court’s decision here. You can also read some history of this case in an earlier blog post here.