The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide a case of critical importance to retaliation claims under the federal wage law, the Fair Labor Standards Act. The request to the Supreme Court presented one question for review:
Is an oral complaint of a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act protected conduct under the anti-retaliation provision, 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3)?
Anti-retaliation laws give powerful protection for employees who either complain about their own discriminatory treatment, or someone else’s. Often the proof available to establish sexual harassment, for example, is too disputed for the plaintiff to win, but the employer’s retaliatory reaction is crystal clear.
For historical reasons the language of the Fair Labor Standards Act is different. That law dates from the Great Depression, while the Civil Rights Acts from the 60s, 70s, and 80s broadened the language defining retaliation.
In the case before the Supreme Court, a Wisconsin factory worker complained to his supervisor and to the company’s human resources department that the company’s location of time clocks was illegal. The placement of the clocks led to employees not being paid for time spent putting on and taking off protective clothing and Kevin Kasten warned his company, using the company’s reporting procedures, that it was acting illegally. He was warned, suspended and fired. The company lost in the trial court but convinced the appeals court that oral complaints cannot be “filed,” as required by the statute.
The Supreme Court accepts very few cases every year, but one of its major criteria is whether there is a “split” in the Circuits, meaning that appellate courts of equal stature interpret the same law in opposite ways. This issue has split the Circuits, with many agreeing that to “file” a complaint does not require a piece of paper.
It is never safe to guess why the Supreme Court takes on a case, or how the case will come out. Still, it will be helpful to get this issue settled. If the Court upholds the Seventh Circuit, and permits retaliation for oral complaints of wage violations, the outcome will likely be more retaliatory firings, but also perhaps more union campaigns to combat the perceived unfairness, and more employees complaining in writing or to the Department of Labor when they believe there are wage and hour missteps.