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Supreme Court Hands FLSA Victory to Employees

Posted: March 22, 2011 Filed under: Case Law, Employment Law

In a 6-2 opinion, the United States Supreme Court today ruled that the antiretaliation provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who complain orally but not in writing. The decision reverses a ruling by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeal that oral complaints are not protected under the FLSA. The FLSA is the 1938 law that governing minimum wage, maximum hour, and overtime pay. It also forbids employers from discharging “any employee because such employee has filed any complaint” alleging a violation of the Act. 29 U. S. C. §215(a)(3).

Writing for the Court in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., Justice Breyer explained that interpretation of the statutory phrase “filed any complaint” “depends upon reading the whole statutory text, considering the [statute’s] purpose and context . . . , and consulting any precedents or authorities that inform the analysis.” The court concluded that the meaning could not be deciphered from the words alone because some dictionary definitions of “filed” contemplate a writing while others use encompass oral material. Also, various state and federal laws and regulations sometimes contemplate oral filings. The Court also noted that oral filings were a known phenomenon when the FLSA was passed.

The Court noted its broader interpretation promoted the FLSA’s prohibition against “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.” It also gave weight to the interpretations of the Department of Labor and the EEOC, both of which hold the view that “filed any complaint” covers both oral and written complaints.

Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented from the Court’s holding. Justice Kagan did not participate.

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