March 22, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.

On March 22, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., No. 09-834, holding that the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (Act), which forbids employers "to discharge . . . any employee because such employee has filed any complaint" alleging a violation of the Act, 29 U. S. C. §215(a)(3), bars retaliation based on oral as well as written complaints.

Plaintiff Kevin Kasten brought an antiretaliation suit against his former employer Saint-Gobain under the Act, claiming that he was discharged because he orally complained to company officials about the company's placement of timeclocks in a location that prevented workers from receiving credit for the time they spent donning and doffing work-related protective gear.  The District Court granted Saint-Gobain summary judgment, concluding that the Act's antiretaliation provision did not cover oral complaints. The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed, resolving a circuit split and holding that oral complaints fall within the scope of the Act's prohibition on retaliation.  The Court concluded that it could not rely exclusively on the statutory language "filed any complaint," noting that statutes, court decisions, and common usage all sometimes employ the word "file" to refer to oral communication.  The Court determined that Congress intended the antiretaliation provision to include oral complaints, observing that a contrary conclusion would undermine the Act's basic objectives and remove needed flexibility from those who enforce the Act.  The Court also cited the Department of Labor's and other agencies' longstanding interpretations of this and similar provisions to include oral complaints.  The Court declined to reach Saint-Gobain's argument that the antiretaliation provision of the Act applies only to complaints filed with the government, not those filed with the employer itself. 

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Alito, and Sotomayor joined.  Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Thomas joined in all but one footnote.  Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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