Supreme Court Defines “Complaint” In Significant Wage-Hour Case


Sometimes cases turn on a single word or phrase, whether those pivotal words are found in a statute, regulation, rule, handbook or an email. It’s a rarity that those singular expressions or phrases have as widespread an impact as the words at issue in a Supreme Court decision issued today. In a 6 -2 ruling (Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case), the Supreme Court clarified the meaning of the words “filed any complaint” from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) anti-retaliation provision. Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.

While employers will not be pleased with the Court’s ruling, the opinion adds some much-needed clarity to the issue of what constitutes protected activity under the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision. In the end, both employers and employees may find that Court’s opinion is beneficial.

When Is A Complaint A “Complaint”?

Kevin Kasten worked in the Saint-Gobain’s facility in Portage, Wisconsin from October, 2003, until December, 2006. In 2006, Kasten received several disciplinary warnings due to several “issues” he had with clocking in and out. Kasten’s first disciplinary action included the following warning: “[i]f the same or any other violation occurs in the subsequent 12-month period from this date of verbal reminder, a written warning may be issued.” Kasten’s second disciplinary action included the following warning: “[i]f the same or any other violation occurs in the subsequent 12-month period from this date [sic] will result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination.”

Kasten’s third write-up contained the following warning: “[t]his is the last step of the disciplinary process” and warned that another violation could result in further discipline, including termination. In December 2006, after a fourth violation of the time clock policy, Saint Gobain suspended Kasten, and subsequently terminated his employment for these repeated violations.

Kasten alleged that he complained to several superiors, and a Human Resources employee, regarding the placement of the time clocks from approximately October 2006 until his termination in December 2006. Specifically, Kasten alleged that the location of the time clocks was illegal and that if he [Mr. Kasten] were to challenge the company in court, the company would lose. None of Kasten’s alleged complaints were made in writing.

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