The Supreme Court, on March 22, 2010, agreed to answer a question that has divided the circuit courts of appeal—whether the FLSA retaliation provision protects verbal complaints made by employees or only written ones. The Court will review the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 570 F.3d 834 (7th Cir. 2009), where the Seventh Circuit held verbal complaints regarding unlawful pay practices do not fall under the protections of the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision, 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). The decision follows the Second and Fourth Circuits, which previously held that an employee is not protected from retaliation under the FLSA where the employee has not complained in writing, based on the statutory requirement that the retaliation be in response to a “filing” (Note: the Second Circuit goes even further — declining to protect internal written complaints and protecting only formal complaints to the DOL or a court). In Kasten, the Seventh Circuit agreed with this interpretation, and held that since Plaintiff’s complaints were “purely verbal”, this was fatal to his claim. Id. at 838.
Several circuit courts, including the First, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth, however, have ruled verbal complaints are sufficient. Three judges dissented in the Seventh Circuit’s subsequent decision in Kasten to deny rehearing en banc, citing these cases. Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 585 F.3d 310 (7th Cir. 2009). The dissenters criticized the majority’s decision, observing: "the [Seventh Circuit] has taken a position contrary to the longstanding view of the Department of Labor, departed from the holdings of other circuits, and interpreted the statutory language in a way that [we] believe is contrary to the understanding of Congress." Id. at 311.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Kasten, whether accepting or rejecting the Seventh Circuit’s employer-friendly approach, will hopefully provide some clarification regarding whether internal verbal complaints are protected under federal law. As always, state laws may (and do) differ.