Kasten v. Saint-Gobain - Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Employees in FLSA Complaint Case

 The Supreme Court has issued an opinion 6-2 in favor of employees (Just Kagen did not participate in the decision) in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.  The court held that for the purposes of invoking retaliation protection under the FLSA a "complaint" may be made either in writing or orally.  The employer had argued that because the statute used the phraseology "filed a complaint," oral complaints should not confer protection against retaliation.

Here is the reasoning of the majority in a nutshell from the Court's syllabus:

 (a) The interpretation of the statutory phrase “depends upon reading the whole statutory text, considering the [statute’s] purpose andcontext . . . , and consulting any precedents or authorities that informthe analysis.” Dolan v. Postal Service, 546 U. S. 481, 486. The text, taken alone, cannot provide a conclusive answer here. Some dictionary definitions of “filed” contemplate a writing while others permitusing “file” in conjunction with oral material. In addition to dictionary definitions, state statutes and federal regulations sometimes contemplate oral filings, and contemporaneous judicial usage shows thatoral filings were a known phenomenon at the time of the Act’s passage. Even if “filed,” considered alone, might suggest a narrow interpretation limited to writings, “any complaint” suggests a broad interpretation that would include an oral complaint. Thus, the three-word phrase, taken by itself, cannot answer the interpretive question. The Act’s other references to “filed” also do not resolve the linguistic question. Some of those provisions involve filed material that is virtually always in writing; others specifically require a writing, and the remainder, like the provision here, leave the oral/written question unresolved. Since “filed any complaint” lends itself linguistically to thebroader, “oral” interpretation, the use of broader language in other statutes’ antiretaliation provisions does not indicate whether Congress did or did not intend to leave oral grievances unprotected here.Because the text, taken alone, might, or might not, encompass oralcomplaints, the Court must look further. Pp. 4–8.

(b) Several functional considerations indicate that Congress intended the antiretaliation provision to cover oral, as well as written, complaints. Pp. 8–14.  

(1) A narrow interpretation would undermine the Act’s basic objective, which is to prohibit “labor conditions detrimental to themaintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health,efficiency, and general well-being of workers,” 29 U. S. C. §202(a).The Act relies for enforcement of its substantive standards on “information and complaints received from employees,” Mitchell v. Robert DeMario Jewelry, Inc., 361 U. S. 288, 292, and its antiretaliation provision makes the enforcement scheme effective by preventing “fear ofeconomic retaliation” from inducing workers “quietly to accept substandard conditions,” ibid. Why would Congress want to limit the enforcement scheme’s effectiveness by inhibiting use of the Act’s complaint procedure by those who would find it difficult to reduce theircomplaints to writing, particularly the illiterate, less educated, oroverworked workers who were most in need of the Act’s help at thetime of passage? Limiting the provision’s scope to written complaintscould prevent Government agencies from using hotlines, interviews, and other oral methods to receive complaints. And insofar as the provision covers complaints made to employers, a limiting reading would discourage using informal workplace grievance procedures tosecure compliance with the Act. The National Labor Relations Act’s antiretaliation provision has been broadly interpreted as protecting workers who simply “participate[d] in a [National Labor Relations] Board investigation.” NLRB v. Scrivener, 405 U. S. 117, 123. The similar enforcement needs of this related statute argue for a broad interpretation of “complaint.” The Act’s requirement that an employer receive fair notice of an employee’s complaint can be met byoral, as well as written, complaints. Pp. 8–12.

(2) Given the delegation of enforcement powers to federal administrative agencies, their views about the meaning of the phrase should be given a degree of weight. The Secretary of Labor has consistently held the view that “filed any complaint” covers both oral and written complaints. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has set out a similar view in its Compliance Manual and in multiple briefs. These views are reasonable and consistent with the Act. And the length of time they have been held suggests that they reflect careful consideration, not “post hoc rationalizatio[n].” Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Assn. of United States, Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co., 463 U. S. 29, 50. Pp. 12–13.

 

(3) After engaging in traditional statutory interpretation methods, the statute does not remain sufficiently ambiguous to warrantapplication of the rule of lenity. Pp. 13–14. 

(c) This Court will not consider Saint-Gobain’s alternative claim that the antiretaliation provision applies only to complaints filed with the Government, since that claim was not raised in the certiorari briefs and since its resolution is not a “ ‘predicate to an intelligent resolution’ ” of the oral/written question at issue, Caterpillar Inc. v. Lewis, 519 U. S. 61, 75, n. 13. 

 

I have some crow to eat regarding this decision in that I thought the result would be a much closer decision and would very possibly come out in favor of the employer.  But this decision is certainly a happy surprise for employees, whose protection form retaliation will not be at risk due to hyper-technical application of an employer's internal formal complaint mechanism.

More analysis will certainly be forthcoming in the coming days but I wanted to get the decision up and to you as quickly as possible.  

Here is a link to the decision.