Supreme Court Disagrees with 7th Circuit, Finding Employee's Oral Complaint Entitled to Protection.

On March 22, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision that an employee who makes an oral complaint, rather than a written one, is still protected by the anti-retaliation provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The case, Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., involved an employee who verbally complained to his employer about the placement of the time-clock used by employees, claiming that the location prevented workers from receiving credit for the time they spent donning and doffing work-related protective gear. The employee also claimed that his subsequent termination was retaliatory and that the real reason the company fired him was because he told his supervisor and a member of the company’s human resources department that he thought the placement of the time-clock was illegal and that he was considering bringing a lawsuit about it.

Although a separate legal proceeding determined that the time-clocks were placed improperly, the trial court granted summary judgment for the employer on the employee’s retaliation claim, reasoning that a verbal complaint did not qualify for the FLSA’s anti-retaliation protection. On appeal, the 7th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed and upheld the ruling in favor of the employer. However, the Supreme Court reversed and held that not providing protection to verbal complaints would discourage employees from using informal workplace grievance procedures.

The most important take-away message for employers is that you have to train your managers and human resource departments to recognize when a conversation with an employee who is upset about something rises to the level of a legally protected complaint. This case also underscores the frequency with which many employers make costly mistakes regarding their compliance with the FLSA and other wage and hour laws.