In a Supreme Court decision issued in late March, Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation, 2011 WL 977061 (U.S.), the Court continued its pro-employee expansion of causes of action stemming from workplace conduct. At issue in this case is the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, an Act which provides minimum wage, maximum hour, and overtime pay rules. This Act contains anti-retaliation language prohibiting employers from discharging an employee who has filed a complaint.
Kevin Kasten, the plaintiff, had complained that his employer’s placement of timeclocks prevented workers from receiving credit for time spent getting into and out of protective gear. Kasten claimed that his employer located timeclocks between the area where he and other workers put on and took off their work-related protective gear and the area where they carried out their assigned tasks. In a separate lawsuit, a court agreed with Kasten, finding that Saint-Gobain’s practice violated the Act.
In the current case, Kasten argued that he had repeatedly followed the company’s grievance procedure by bringing the unlawful timeclock location to the company’s attention. Kasten’s complaints, he alleged, eventually led to his termination in December 2006. Saint-Gobain, on the other hand, argued that Kasten failed to make any significant complaint about the timeclock location and that he was eventually dismissed for failing to record his time on the clock.
The district court dismissed Kasten’s retaliation complaint on the basis that the Fair Labor Standards Act did not protect oral complaints. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed. The United States Supreme Court, however, did not. It ultimately concluded that the Act covered both oral and written complaints. In reaching this decision, it determined, among other things, that Congress intended the anti-retaliation provision to be more expansive and that the narrow interpretation put forth by the lower courts would undermine the Act’s basic objectives.
For employers, this case reinforces the importance of investigating any and all complaints of workplace discrimination or harassment, regardless of whether they originate from written complaints or are made through more informal avenues, such as oral complaints. It further exemplifies the importance of documenting any and all adverse employment decisions, such as a job termination or demotion, as well as the conduct that lead to the decision, in order to avoid later claims of retaliation.