Supreme Court rules on anti-retaliation statute language

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Tuesday ruled [opinion, PDF] 6-2 in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that the language "filed any complaint" of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) [text, PDF] refers to both oral and written complaints. Kasten brought an anti-retaliation suit against the respondent under the FLSA anti-retaliation provision [29 USC § 215(a)(3) text] arguing he was wrongfully discharged from employment for orally complaining to company officials about the location of timeclocks at the facility. The FLSA prohibits employers from terminating employment based on complaints "filed" by employees. Kasten verbally communicated his grievances about the location of the timeclocks to human resource managers, in compliance with the company's employee policy handbook. Saint-Gobain argued that the FLSA was not designed to protect employees only, but was established to ensure that employers had fair notice of employee grievances. The court pointed out that other similar statutes have been interpreted to include oral statements, and administrators and legislators have consistently held that similar language is meant to include oral complaints. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, also considered policy reasons supporting its interpretation of the contested language:

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? ... To limit the scope of the antiretaliation provision to the filing of written complaints would also take needed flexibility from those charged with the Act's enforcement. It could prevent Government agencies from using hotlines, interviews, and other oral methods of receiving complaints. And insofar as the antiretaliation provision covers complaints made to employers [...], it would discourage the use of desirable informal workplace grievance procedures to secure compliance with the Act.
The court ultimately vacated and remanded the case. Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, filed a dissent arguing that the statutory language does not apply to intra-company complaints in the first place.

Saint-Gobain initially claimed that, because the anti-retaliation provision applies only to complaints filed with the government, it is exempt from suit since Kasten's complaints were directed to a private employer. The Supreme Court refused to address this argument because, though Saint-Gobain raised and ultimately lost this argument in the lower courts, the company did not address the issue in its response to Kasten's petition for certiorari. Justices Scalia and Thomas disagreed with the majority, suggesting that the court has previously permitted parties to defend a judgment on grounds not raised in the brief in opposition when doing so is "predicate to an intelligent resolution of the question presented, and therefore fairly included therein." In an earlier suit brought by Kasten, the US District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin [official website] held [opinion, PDF] that Saint-Gobain violated the FLSA by placing timeclocks in a location that prevented workers from receiving credit for time they spent dressing in work-related protective gear.

 

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