Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in Saint-Gobain FLSA Retaliation Case

4United States Supreme Court 112904 The United States Supreme Court heard oral argument today in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics (background of case here from Ross Runkel).

In short (again courtesy of Ross Runkel):

Kasten sued the employer, asserting a retaliation claim under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer. The 7th Circuit affirmed and denied rehearing en banc . . . .

Kasten alleged that he was discharged in retaliation for making oral complaints to his superiors that the employer's placement of time clocks violated the FLSA. The FLSA's anti-retaliation provision prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee because (among other things) the employee "has filed any complaint...." 29 USC Section 215(a)(3).

The 7th Circuit held that "any complaint" includes an employee's internal ("intra-company") complaint. However, the court also held that an employee does not "file" such a complaint in this context when he submits the complaint in purely unwritten form.

As far as the oral argument, here is my quick analysis of the transcript:

1.  The employe argued that "filing" includes an oral communication, because "'any' means any, which      includes formal or informal, written or unwritten communications. And the words in the statute were      designed to have a broad construction under section 2 of 202 of the statute and under Mitchell v. DeMario and the Tennessee Coal case."  This a clear attempt to make a texualist argument and thus persuade Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito on the merits of their case.  Justice Alito pushed back and asked whether the employee's attorney was "filing" his comments to the court and that "filing" usually refer to a written statement.  Justice Scalia later turns to the meaning and sums up by saying - "Come on now, people don't talk like that . . . It is absurd."

2.    Justice Sotomayor also wondered whether filing could occur outside the workplace at a cocktail party.  Counsel for employee seemed a little unprepared to answer that question.

3.    Justice Breyer comes to the aid of employee counsel and limits the potential scope of a holding by suggesting that, "Why do you feel the need to go beyond, say, what the AFL-CIO identifies as a normal . .  .filing? They use language like, at the nitial stage of the grievance procedure, there is confrontation with an eye to fact finding, and the dispute is joined when the employee or the steward orsupervisor come face-to-face to identify, to discuss, and hopefully to resolve a problem."   

4.    Justice Scalia weighs in: "That is to say, if indeed the complaint has to be quote, "filed" with the government, I'm inclined to think that an oral complaint pursuant to procedures established by the agency which permit an oral complaint, even a complaint by telephone that would be okay. But my goodness, if it applies to private employers as well including employers that have no grievance procedures, including employers who have employees who go to cocktail parties, I am -- I am very disinclined to think that it -- that it could mean an oral complaint in -- in that context."

5.    The Assistant Solicit General points out that 20 or so statutes have similar language as the FLSA and most have been interpreted in one way or another to permit intra-company oral complaints to serve as the basis for a retaliation claim.  Although there might seem to be some impracticalities with this scheme, other similar schemes have not proven to be unworkable. The FLSA requires submission to an employer, as opposed to a co-worker, but that complaint can take either oral or written form.

6. As far as a potential standard for what is an operative complaint, the Asst SG suggests: "I think the kind of indicia or formality you are talking about are signs that the employee has submitted to his employer an assertion of statutory rights under the FLSA. I think those are the two things that the lower courts have consistently looked to." Later: "[W]hether the employee has submitted a complaint to his employer that has put the employer on notice that that employee is asserting statutory rights under the FLSA,claiming that he is legally entitled to something he is not receiving."

7.    Counsel for employer says allowing oral complaints would lead to an inherently workable standard. He would limit filing a complaint to instituting a formal proceeding with the government, not just filing an oral, intra-company complaint. This is because the statute is aimed at getting information about an FLSA violation to the government. In this regard, employer counsel states: "I do think it is fundamentally important for this Court to decide the underlying question of whether oral complaints are sufficient only in the context in the first instance of deciding whether or not it has to go to a government agency as opposed to any kind of private or intracorporate activity."

8.    Counsel also went back and forth on whether limiting retaliation actions to where employees complain to the government would give the perverse incentive for employees to air their dirty laundry before trying to work things out with their employers.  There seems to be a real incongruity on the one hand to tell employees to complain internally first (Faragher and Ellerth) and then in a case like this one and in a case like Garcetti where employees are being required to report outside their workplace. Employer counsel that was the intent of Congress; employee counsel, of course, disagreed.

This case seems to come down to the meaning of "filing a complaint" and whether a standard that does not require strict written formalities will be too difficult to implement. Not sure how this case comes out, but if the employee loses it is because the majority was unconvinced that a retaliation provision unhinged from a formal procedure would be workable. Or that the language here must be limited to formal reporting violations to the government.

On the other hand, if the employee wins, the employee and the government have convinced the court that although there is some ambiguity in the statute, allowing oral, intra-company complaints to a form the basis for a retaliation claim is workable and consistent with how other labor and employment law retaliation provisions have been interpreted.  It is also consistent with giving employees incentive to report violations internally without involving the external machinery of the government.

Prediction: 5-3 for employer (with Justice Kagan recused). I believe Kennedy will vote with conservatives here in order not to undermine the productivity and order of the workplace through an unworkable standard. In short, he might view this case much like Garcetti and not concern himself with the incentives being established for employees with FLSA complaints in the future.


Employment Discrimination, Wage & Hour | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in Saint-Gobain FLSA Retaliation Case:


Unfortunately, as happens all too often in workplace cases, the justices' questions largely missed the point. The justices' questions about the informal nature of oral complaints and the cocktail party hypothetical would make sense if the worker complaint triggered some obligation by the employer. But the issue before the court was whether the worker should be protected against retaliation for making even an informal complaint. Why shouldn't a worker be protected from retaliation if he complains to his supervisor at a cocktail party and then the next day the company tells the worker that he is being fired for raising the issue?

Posted by: Andrew Strom | Oct 14, 2010 7:37:33 AM

Here's my opinion. It is not a question whether an oral complaint can be a formal complaint. It is a question of WHEN an oral complaint qualifies as a formal complaint.
"Filing" or lodging a complaint in my opinion does not only covers written formal complaint.

For instance, If two workers (say, new immigrants having educationally unprivileged), proceeded to the HR office to protest an issue associated with how they are being treated by another worker. Because of their literacy impedes them to lodge a written formal complaint, they complain verbally to the HR Manager about their issue.

The question is, Was the lodging of their verbal complaint constitute "filing" a complaint? In my opinion, this lodging of a verbal complaint should equate as "filing" a complaint. Because it meets the following circumstances or criteria:

1. It was heard by a higher authority, in this case, an HR manager.

2. A complainant was present

3. Another person witnessed actual verbal complaint with an authority, in this case, HR Manager.

So, in my opinion, under the above circumstances, lodging a verbal complaint IS "filing" a complaint.

Posted by: Ferdi Tern | Oct 25, 2010 12:47:27 PM

Post a comment