HR Management & Compliance

Supreme Court Rules Oral FLSA Complaints Are OK

Today, in a 6-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) antiretaliation provision protects not just written complaints but also oral ones. The Court noted in its opinion that it heard the case because of a conflict in the circuit courts over whether oral complaints were protected.

In Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., Kevin Kasten sued under the FLSA, asserting that he was fired in retaliation for verbally complaining about his employer’s time-clock placement. The FLSA prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who have “filed any complaint” under the statute. The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the employer, holding that FLSA complaints must be made in writing because of the “filed” language (i.e., an oral complaint cannot be “filed”).

The Supreme Court reasoned that the U.S. Congress intended the FLSA’s antiretaliation provision to cover oral complaints because allowing only written complaints would undermine the Act’s basic objectives and take away government agencies’ flexibility when enforcing the Act (e.g., they might not be able to use hot lines, interviews, or other oral methods of receiving complaints). The Court also noted that not allowing oral complaints would discourage employers from using “desirable informal workplace grievance procedures to secure compliance with the Act.”

According to the Court, however, such FLSA complaints must have some degree of formality: “To fall within the scope of the antiretaliation provision, a complaint must be sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of rights protected by the statute and a call for their protection.” The Court asserted that this standard can be met by both written and oral complaints.

Learn more about complying with wage and hour laws in the Wage and Hour Compliance Manual