Terminated EmployeeUnder the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, an employer is prohibited from terminating an employee for filing any complaint about the employment. Court decisions had indicated that the statute applied only to written complaints. However, in the recent United States Supreme Court case of Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics (2011) 131 S.Ct 1325, the Court held that it was unlawful to terminate an employee who made oral complaints about his employment, the anti-retaliation statute applies both to written and oral complaints.

In Kasten, the plaintiff alleged that his employment was terminated in retaliation for a series of oral complaints he made to his supervisors regarding the location of a time clock. As asserted by the plaintiff, because the time clock was located adjacent to a work area and not near the employees’ disrobement area, employees were not receiving payment for time spent in putting on and removing protective clothing. The Federal District Court dismissed the claim on the basis that the complaints were oral, finding that the Fair Labor Standards Act required a written complaint as the basis for a claim.

The Supreme Court in Kasten reversed the District Court’s ruling and held that the anti-retaliation provision applies both to written and oral complaints. In its opinion, the Court reasoned that because the Fair Labor Standards Act prohibited retaliation against any employee that “filed any complaint”, the statute could be interpreted to apply to both oral and written complaints. The court concluded that the purpose of the statute was to protect workers, many of whom are uneducated and unlikely to reduce their complaints to formal writing, and therefore extending the statute’s coverage to oral complaints was consistent with the goal of the statute.

In summary, the Supreme Court’s holding in Kasten reflects a desire to extend the protections afforded to employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act and employers should be cautious in terminating employees that have made either oral or written complaints about their employment. In that same regard, any criticism or adverse comment made by an employee should be considered a complaint as the holding in Kasten essentially converts the word “filing” into “making,” thus minimizing the standard for what constitutes a complaint. Consequently, a valid basis for termination (such as tardiness) should be cited as the basis for firing an employee that has complained about the employment.