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U.S. Supreme Court Holds That Employers May Not Retaliate Against Workers For Orally Complaining About Unpaid Overtime Compensation

  • By: David Rich
  • Published: April 18, 2011

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, as amended, 29 U.S.C. §§ 201-219 (“FLSA”), sets forth employment rules relating to minimum wages, maximum hours, and overtime compensation. Section 15(a)(3) of the FLSA is an anti-retaliation provision that prohibits employers from, among other actions, “discharg[ing] or in any other manner discriminat[ing] against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint.” 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3).

In March 2011, in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation, No. 09-834, 563 U.S. ____ (March 22, 2011) (Breyer, J.), the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 6-2 vote, held that oral, as well as written, complaints by employees may give rise to a claim under section 15(a)(3) of the FLSA. In other words, the Kasten Court held that employers may not fire or otherwise retaliate against workers who orally complain about violations of minimum wage or overtime pay laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Kasten decision overruled precedent in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (the federal court of appeals whose decisions bind federal trial courts situated in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont) holding that the FLSA’s antiretaliation provision does not cover informal complaints to supervisors. See Lambert v. Genesee Hosp., 10 F.3d 46, 55-56 (2d Cir. 1993)overruled by Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., No. 09-834, 563 U.S. ___.

In a lawsuit related to Kasten, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin had held that Saint-Gobain’s Performance Plastics Corporation (“Saint-Gobain” or “the employer”) violated the FLSA by not paying employees for time spent putting on and taking off their work-related protective gear. In Kasten, the plaintiff employee alleged that, on multiple occasions, he orally complained to management at Saint-Gobain that the employer located its time clocks in a location that prevented workers for receiving credit for time spent donning and doffing their work-related protective gear. The plaintiff employee further alleged that Saint-Gobain fired him because he orally protested to Saint-Gobain officials about the timeclocks.

The District Court, holding that the FLSA did not protect oral complaints, granted summary judgment in the employer’s favor. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Kasten decision vacated the Seventh Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case to the lower courts to give the plaintiff employee an opportunity to prove his retaliation claim.

Much as Kasten expands the bases for a worker’s civil claim against his employer for retaliating against the worker for complaining of the employer’s violation of federal minimum wage or overtime pay laws, the New York Wage Theft Prevention Act, A. 11726/S. 8380, which took effect on April 9, 2011, broadens the bases for a civil claim by a worker against his employer for retaliating against the worker for complaining about the employer’s violation of New York State minimum wage or overtime pay laws. This author’s December 2010 post on the Wage Theft Prevention Act is linked here. This author’s March 2010 post on the (then-pending) Wage Theft Prevention Act is linked here.

Among other revisions, the New York Wage Theft Prevention Act amends the New York Labor Law by specifying that, to give rise to a civil cause of action by a worker against his employer for termination in retaliation for the worker complaining that the employer violated overtime compensation laws, minimum wage laws, or other wage and hour laws, the worker need not complain to the employer about an actual violation of wage and hour laws. Rather, the worker need only complain to the employer about conduct that the worker “reasonably and in good faith[] believes” violates wage and hour laws. N.Y. Labor Law § 215(1)(a) (effective April 9, 2011).

Call the Law Offices of David S. Rich, LLC at (347) 835-5688 to speak with a knowledgeable labor and employment lawyer about making sure that your company complies with overtime pay and other wage and hour laws, or to retain a skilled overtime attorney to defend your company in unpaid overtime lawsuits or other wage and hour litigation.

David Rich, Esq.

David Rich David S. Rich is the founding member of the Law Offices of David S. Rich, LLC,
a Manhattan Employment and Business Litigation Law Firm, in New
York City and in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey...View Profile