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The United States Supreme Court recently ruled in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. that an employer’s termination of an employee in response to an oral complaint about working conditions does subject the employer to potential liability for violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

The FLSA sets forth employment rules concerning minimum wages, maximum hours, and overtime pay. 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. The Act contains an anti-retaliation provision that forbids employers “to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to [the Act]. . . .” § 215(a)(3) (emphasis added).

In Kasten, the Court was charged with deciding whether the statutory term “filed any complaint” includes oral as well as written complaints within its scope. The Court concluded that it does.  In so holding, the Court analyzed the meaning of “filed” and opined that even if the word “filed,” considered alone, might suggest a narrow interpretation limited to writings, “any complaint” suggests a broad interpretation that would include an oral complaint.  The Court also noted that the FLSA’s other references to “filed” only complicate the issue.  For instance, some FLSA provisions involve filed material that is virtually always in writing; others specifically require a writing; and the remainder, like § 215(a)(3), leave the oral/written question unresolved.  Accordingly, because the text of §215(a)(3), taken alone, may or may not encompass oral complaints, the Court decided to look further.

Upon a deeper analysis, the Court determined that several functional considerations indicate that Congress intended the anti-retaliation provision to cover oral as well as written complaints.  Indeed, “a narrow interpretation would undermine the FLSA’s basic objective, which is to prohibit ‘labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.’”  29 U.S.C. § 202(a).  The Court emphasized that the FSLA relies for enforcement of its substantive standards on information and complaints received from employees, and its anti-retaliation provision makes the enforcement scheme effective by preventing fear of economic retaliation from inducing workers quietly to accept substandard conditions.  In addition, the Court noted that “[l]imiting the provision’s scope to written complaints could prevent Government agencies from using hotlines, interviews, and other oral methods to receive complaints. And insofar as the provision covers complaints made to employers, a limited reading would discourage using informal workplace grievance procedures to secure compliance with the Act.”  Based upon the foregoing, the Court ultimately held that the FLSA’s requirement that an employer receive fair notice of an employee’s complaint can be met by oral, as well as written, complaints.

The holding in Kasten does little to change the practical application of employment law.  It should remind all employers, however, that an employee who complains of a violation of law, and who then disciplines an employee, including termination, may face heightened scrutiny based upon the violation of the anti-retaliation provision.  Of significance is that the court did not find that the oral complaint had to be made to a governmental agency, but rather it could be made to the employer directly.