The United States Supreme Court has held that under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), the federal law that requires proper payment of wages and overtime pay, an employer cannot retaliate against an employee who complains about a possible violation of that law, even where the complaint is oral rather than in writing. Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., No. 09-834 (Mar. 22, 2011).

The FLSA provides that employers cannot “discharge or otherwise discriminate against an employee because such employee has filed any complaint or otherwise instituted any proceeding under or related to the [FLSA].” [emphasis added] The employer in Kasten argued, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit had found, that by using the phrase “filed any complaint,” Congress meant to protect only those employees who put their complaints in writing. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that interpretation would deter employees, particularly those who are uneducated or illiterate, from coming forward with good-faith concerns about possible violations of the law. At the same time, however, the Court recognized that the reference to filing a complaint “contemplates some degree of formality,” and that for a complaint to be protected, it “must be sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of rights protected by the statute.”

The employer also argued that employees should be protected only if they complain to government agencies, not to their employer. Although the Court declined to address that issue, its opinion in this case, and in others where the Court has broadly interpreted anti-retaliation provisions, leaves little doubt that employees who complain about possible FLSA violations – internally or externally, orally or in writing – are protected from retaliation.