U.S. Supreme Court: Oral Complaints Are Covered Under FLSA's Anti-retaliation Provision


Is an oral complaint protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and how may employers distinguish between generalized workplace gripes and protected complaints? Courts have struggled with these questions for years. In Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., the U.S. Supreme Court held that a “sufficiently clear and detailed” oral complaint is protected under the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA.

Case background

The FLSA prohibits retaliating against an employee who has “filed a complaint.” Kevin Kasten, a manufacturing employee, made several oral complaints to different supervisors at different times that his employer, Saint-Gobain, was violating the FLSA because time clocks were placed in a location beyond the area where protective gear was donned, resulting in employees not receiving credit for that time.

Kasten first “raised a concern” with a shift supervisor that time clocks were not properly located. He later told a human resources employee that Saint-Gobain would lose if the issue was litigated in court. He mentioned to his lead operator that he thought he might file a lawsuit. He made similar comments to the human resources and operations managers.

Meanwhile, Kasten was terminated because, despite several warnings, he failed to clock in and out to record his time. He filed suit alleging his termination was in retaliation for his complaints. The district court dismissed his retaliation claim on the grounds that the FLSA only protected “filed” complaints and, as a matter of law, an oral complaint is not a “filed” complaint.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed. The court concluded that to be protected under the FLSA a complaint had to be made with a sufficient degree of formality to impress upon the employer that it was an actual complaint, not merely a casual gripe. Kasten’s diffuse oral grievances fell short of this mark.

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