Kevin Kasten complained to his employer, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, about what he considered an unfair labor practice. In retaliation for his complaint, Kasten’s employment was terminated. Such action on the part of an employer constitutes a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The employer’s position was that Kasten never actually “filed” a complaint, since it was made orally and not in writing.
The Seventh Circuit agreed with the employer, but the Supreme Court sided with Kasten, who was supported by an amicus curiae brief filed by the United States. The court below’s ruling, published at 570 F. 3d 834, has been vacated and remanded.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 [29 U.S.C. 215(a)(3)], contains an anti-retaliation provision which makes it unlawful for an employer “to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint.”
In oral argument before the high court, Minneapolis attorney James H. Kaster successfully convinced a majority of the Court that the words in the statute were designed to have a broad construction. Filing a complaint under the FLSA “includes an oral communication, because ‘any’ means any, which includes formal or informal, written or unwritten communications.” The full oral argument audio recording is available below.
The question before the high court was whether the term “any complaint” in the statute is meant to include even a complaint expressed only orally. Are workers protected from retaliation by their employer if they complain to a supervisor about a practice believed to be in violation of the FLSA? An employer might react to such an expression on the part of an employee by investigating the validity of the complaint, or by killing the messenger. In the case of Mr. Kasten, his employer chose the latter, by terminating his employment.
In a 6 to 2 decision (Justice Kagan recused herself from the case), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Kevin Kasten, finding that for the purposes of the FLSA, a complaint expressed orally is equally valid as one filed formally in writing.
This was a major victory for the working class. It means that any complaints from workers concerning a perceived unfair labor practice, even if not formally made in writing, are equally protected against retaliation by employers. This case will likely set an important precedent in the interpretation and enforcement of other workers’ rights statutes, such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
Amicus Curiae Briefs in Support of Petitioner
THE NATIONAL EMPLOYMENT LAW PROJECT,
INTERFAITH WORKER JUSTICE,
LEGAL AID SOCIETY,
NATIONAL DOMESTIC WORKERS ALLIANCE,
NATIONAL EMPLOYMENT LAWYERS ASSOCIATION,
RESTAURANT OPPORTUNITIES CENTER UNITED,
TEXAS RIOGRANDE LEGAL AID,
SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER,
CALIFORNIA RURAL LEGAL ASSISTANCE, INC.,
UNITED FOOD AND COMMERCIAL WORKERS INTERNATIONAL UNION,
AND THE EQUAL JUSTICE CENTER