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Home » Retaliation » E.D.Mo.: Informal Workplace Complaints Are Not “Protected Activity” Under § 215(a)(3)

E.D.Mo.: Informal Workplace Complaints Are Not “Protected Activity” Under § 215(a)(3)

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Bartis v. John Bommarito Oldsmobile-Cadillac, Inc.

Plaintiff worked for Defendant as a car salesman. Plaintiff alleged that he was fired after he complained about and refused to comply with what he believed to be unlawful employment practices. Plaintiff asserted claims for retaliatory discharge under the Fair Labor Standards Act and under state law. Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that, by simply complaining to his supervisor, Plaintiff did not engage in any protected activity that would shield him from retaliatory discharge. The Court agreed and concluded the FLSA and Missouri state law do not prohibit an employer from terminating an employee merely because the employee raised workplace complaints. Therefore, the Court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss.

The Court explained, “In the Eighth Circuit, district courts are guided by the decision in Brennan v. Maxey’s Yamaha, Inc., 513 F.2d 179 (8th Cir.1975). In Brennan, the government brought suit against an employer after the employer withheld overtime compensation from its employees. The employer had agreed to pay the overtime after a Department of Labor investigation found violations of the FLSA. But then the employer required the employees to endorse their back-wage checks over to the employer. One employee was terminated after she refused to do so. Id. at 180. The court held that the employee’s discharge was unlawful retaliation in violation of § 215(a)(3). According to the court, “her discharge was a direct result of her insistence upon receiving retroactive benefits required under the [FLSA].” Id. at 181. Thus, “the immediate cause or motivation” of the discharge was the employee’s assertion of statutory rights, thereby violating § 215(a)(3). Id. That the employee did not “file” a complaint or “initiate” a proceeding was irrelevant.

The decision in Brennan provides some support for the plaintiff here, but it is not dispositive. In Brennan, unlike this case, there was already an agreement in place between the Department of Labor and the employer regarding the payment of back wages. This agreement was necessarily a “proceeding” covered by § 215(a)(3). The FLSA protected the employee seeking to vindicate her FLSA rights where the formal proceeding was already in place when the employee complained and was terminated.

The Eighth Circuit decisions interpreting § 215(a)(3) make clear that the employee must engage in protected activity in order to be shielded from retaliation. See Grey, 396 F.3d at 1034-35. The “protected activities” are listed explicitly in the statute: filing a complaint, instituting or testifying in a proceeding, or serving on a committee. Workplace complaints are not included. Raising informal objections with one’s supervisor is not included. Bartis is correct to point out that within the protected activities enumerated in the FLSA, there is room for broad interpretation. See Saffels v. Rice, 40 F.3d 1546, 1549-50 (8th Cir.1995) (holding that the anti-retaliation provision protects an employee who was fired because the employer had a mistaken belief that the employee filed a complaint with the Department of Labor). But the statute cannot be construed so broadly as to depart from its plain and clear language. See Brown v. L & P Indus., No. 5:04CV379JLH, 2005 WL 3503637 (E.D.Ark. Dec. 21, 2005) (employee who merely contemplated filing a complaint with the Department of Labor and threatened to do so was not covered by anti-retaliation provision). See also Haug v. Bank of America, N.A., 317 F.3d 832, 835 (8th Cir.2003) (“Where the language of a statute is unambiguous, the statute should be enforced as written unless there is clear legislative intent to the contrary.”).

Moreover, the FLSA anti-retaliation language stands in stark contrast to the anti-retaliation provision found in another labor statute, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That statute prohibits employer retaliation against any employee who has ” opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a) (emphasis added). Protection for anyone who “opposes a practice” is far broader than the protection found in the narrow limitations of the FLSA. Congress knows how to afford broad protection against retaliation when it wants to. Unlike Title VII, the FLSA anti-retaliation provision is limited in its scope and does not extend to activities that fall outside its clear text. For these reasons, Bartis’s claim for unlawful retaliation under the FLSA must be dismissed.”

The decision demonstrates the continuing interpretation throughout the country as to what constitutes “protected activity” thereby giving rise to the protections of 215(a)(3), the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision.


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