In late March, 2011, in a case entitled Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., the Supreme Court held that employees who make complaints to their employers regarding wage violations, even verbal ones, are protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). 

            The case arose after an employee made complaints to his former employer about where it kept the time clocks that recorded the hours that employees worked in a manufacturing plant.  The time clocks were located away from where employees had to put on and take off protective gear, and thus employees where not given credit for, and were not paid for, the time spent doing so.  Later, in a related case, a federal court ruled that that practice was in violation of the FLSA.  

            Shortly after making his verbal complaints, the company fired the employee, allegedly for reasons unrelated to his complaints.  The employee then filed a lawsuit alleging that his termination was in retaliation for his complaint.  

            Lower federal courts dismissed the employee’s lawsuit, finding that in order to be protected against retaliation, a complaint regarding underpayment of wages had to be in writing. 

            The main issue in the case was whether the phrase “filed any complaint” found in the FLSA applied only to written complaints, and not to verbal ones.  There had been a split in lower federal courts, with some holding that verbal complaints to an employer were sufficient, while others concluding that a complaint had to be in writing.  Indeed, some lower courts had decided that the law only applied to written complaints made to the government, such as the United States Department of Labor, and not even to written complaints to employers.

            In deciding that the law applied to verbal complaints, the Supreme Court considered the plain meaning of the word “filed”, which it concluded could encompass such complaints.  It also considered the intent of Congress in enacting the FLSA, which was to address poor working conditions. 

            However, the Supreme Court stopped short of holding that all verbal complaints would satisfy the statutory definition of “filed any complaint”.  Rather, the Court held, a complaint must be sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand that it is “an assertion of rights protected by the statute and a call for their protection”. 

            In light of this decision, I would urge all employers to enact procedures to handle complaints of unlawful wage practices, akin to those that all employers should already have in place for complaints of discrimination and harassment.