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3d Cir.: FLSA Retaliation Provisions Protect Anticipated Collective Action Opt-ins
Uronis v. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp.
Resolving an issue of first impression, the Third Circuit recently held that a job applicant who was a potential member of a collective action, was entitled to the protections of the FLSA anti-retaliation provisions.
The FLSA prohibits discrimination against employees who have engaged in “protected activity” which, in part, includes having “testified” or being “about to testify” in any FLSA-related proceeding. 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). However, until the Third Circuit’s recent decision, it was unclear whether an employee or potential employee’s status as a potential member of a collective action protected him or her from retaliation under the FLSA. The Third Circuit held that it does, and reversed the lower court’s opinion which had dismissed the Complaint and held that it did not.
In this case, a former coworker of plaintiff Matthew Uronis filed a collective action lawsuit against both Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation and a transport and rental company, claiming that the two companies were joint employers and that they failed to properly pay overtime to members of the class, in violation of the FLSA, in February 2019. Uronis, who was similarly employed by the same transport and rental company (and arguably jointly employed by Cabot), was allegedly similarly situated to the named-Plaintiff in that case, based on the definition of the putative collective action contained within the complaint in the initial case.
Subsequent to February 2019, in August 2019, Uronis alleged that he applied for a position with GasSearch Drilling Services Corporation (GDS), a subsidiary of Cabot. In response, on August 28, 2019, a GDS manager sent Uronis a text message stating that, despite his clear qualifications, GDS could not hire Uronis because he was a putative member of the collective action lawsuit against Cabot and the transport and rental company. That same day, Uronis signed his consent to join the collective action. However, he had not informed anyone at Cabot or GDS that he planned to join the lawsuit.
Following GDS refusal to hire him, based on his status a potential opt-in plaintiff, Uronis filed his own lawsuit, against Cabot and GDS, alleging they violated Section 215(a)(3) of the FLSA when GDS refused to hire him and others because they were “about to testify” in his former coworker’s lawsuit. Uronis referenced the text message from the GDS manager and attached a copy to his Complaint.
In response to the Complaint, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss on the basis that Uronis had not pled conduct constituting protected activity under Section 215(a)(3). The district court agreed, granted the defendants’ motion, and dismissed the case.
The district court concluded that Uronis was not “about to testify” because he had not alleged he was scheduled to provide testimony in the underlying collective action. On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed.
Noting first that “Congress included in the FLSA an antiretaliation provision . . . to encourage employees to assert their rights without ‘fear of economic retaliation [which] might often operate to induce aggrieved employees to quietly accept substandard conditions,” the Third Circuit stated that the FLSA “must not be interpreted or applied in a narrow, grudging manner.” In support of this position, the Court of Appeals cited to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation, 563 U.S. 1 (2011), in which the Court held that an oral complaint of an FLSA violation constitutes protected activity, even though the statute (in a companion subsection) refers to a complaint that has been “filed,” which most commonly is interpreted to require a written document.
In so holding, the Supreme Court reasoned that to limit the scope of Section 15(a)(3) to the filing of written complaints would foul Congress’ intent by ‘prevent[ing] Government agencies from using hotlines, interviews, and other oral methods of receiving complaints’ and ‘discourag[ing] the use of desirable informal workplace grievance procedures to secure compliance with the [FLSA].’” The Court further noted that it had interpreted an analogous provision of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to protect conduct not explicitly listed in that NLRA, specifically, to extend anti-retaliation protection to individuals who merely had participated in a National Labor Relations Board investigation, even though the language of the NLRA itself referred only to those who had “filed charges or given testimony.”
The Court of Appeals further noted that previously, in Brock v. Richardson, 812 F.2d 121 (3d Cir. 1987), it had extended the protections of Section 215(a)(3) to individuals whom the employer believed had filed a complaint with the Department of Labor, even though they had not actually done so. “Even though the statute could be narrowly read to not include retaliation based on perception, such retaliation ‘creates the same atmosphere of intimidation’ as does discrimination based on situations explicitly listed in Section 15(a)(3),” the Court of Appeals reiterated, adding that “[s]uch an atmosphere of intimidation is particularly repugnant to the purpose of the FLSA in the context of collective actions.” Similarly, “[i]f employers can retaliate against an employee because the employer believes the employee has or will soon file a consent to join an FLSA collective action, this enforcement mechanism – and employee protection – will be gutted.
However, added the Third Circuit, “Section 15(a)(3) is not a per se bar against any adverse employment action against an employee who is or might soon be a collective action member. Rather, it bars discrimination because of protected activity.” Again citing to Kasten, the Court of Appeals emphasized that to qualify as arguably protected activity, the employer must be given “fair notice” that a reasonably detailed and clear complaint, whether oral or written, has been asserted (as in Kasten) or, as here, that the individual was “about to testify” in an FLSA proceeding (as the Third Circuit now broadly interprets that phrase) and there must be plausible evidence (or allegations) that the employer was aware of the conduct.
Reversing the district court, the Third Circuit explained:
The reasoning of Kasten and Brock compel the conclusion that to ‘testify’ under Section 15(a)(3) includes the filing of an informational statement with a government entity. A consent to join a collective action is just that: it is an informational statement (that an employee is similarly situated to the named plaintiff with respect to the alleged FLSA violation) made to a government entity (the court).
Accordingly, concluded the Third Circuit, “an employee testifies under Section 15(a)(3) when the employee files a consent to join an FLSA collective action.”
Likewise, the Court of Appeals held that “‘about to testify’ includes testimony that is impending or anticipated, but has not been scheduled or subpoenaed.” As set forth in several other district court decisions, “‘about to’ . . . includes activity that is ‘reasonably close to, almost, on the verge of,’ or ‘intending to do something or close to doing something very soon.’” This includes individuals who, like Uronis, intended to soon file his consent to join the collective action and testify in that lawsuit, the Third Circuit noted. Finally, the Court of Appeals held, Uronis had sufficiently pled – as evidenced by the text to him from the GDS manager – not only that Cabot and GDS were aware, or at least assumed, that he would join the collective action, but that GDS was flatly refusing to hire him for this very reason. Based on these allegations, “[i]t is plausible that [GDS would not hire Uronis] because they anticipated [he] and his former co-workers would soon file consents to join the putative collective action, or otherwise provide evidence relating to it.” Accordingly, the Third Circuit said, the complaint should not have been dismissed on the pleadings and the case was due to be remanded for further consideration.
Congratulations to Morgan & Morgan attorney Angeli Murthy for her outstanding advocacy on behalf of Uronis! Ms. Murthy was supported by the Department of Labor who filed amicus in support of Uronis as well.
Click Uronis v. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. to read the entire decision.
9th Cir.: Employer’s Attorney Can Be Sued for Retaliation as a “Person Acting Directly or Indirectly” in Employer’s Interest
This case presented an issue of first impression: Can an employer’s attorney be held liable for retaliating against his client’s employee because the employee sued his client for violations of workplace laws? The district court held that he could not and dismissed the claim. On appeal the Ninth Circuit disagreed and reversed. Specifically, the Ninth Circuit held that as a “person acting directly or indirectly” in the employer’s interest, the employer’s attorney could be subject to liability under 29 U.S.C. § 215.
In the case, the defendant-employers had hired the plaintiff-employee, an undocumented immigrant without verifying his immigration status or his right to work in the United States. Although not explicitly stated, the Ninth Circuit’s opinion strongly implies that the defendants intentionally neglected to complete an I-9 form or verify plaintiff’s status because it knew he was not legally permitted to work in the United States.
After working for defendants for 11 years, in 2006, plaintiff filed suit in California state court against defendants, alleging that defendants violated a multitude of employment laws, and alleged among other things that defendants failed to provide him with legally mandated rest breaks and failed to pay him legally mandated overtime premiums.
The Ninth Circuit recited the following facts regarding the alleged retaliation, all taken from plaintiffs subsequent lawsuit alleging illegal retaliation that was the subject of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion:
On June 1, 2011, ten weeks before the state court trial, the Angelos’ attorney, Anthony Raimondo, set in motion an underhanded plan to derail Arias’s lawsuit. Raimondo’s plan involved enlisting the services of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) to take Arias into custody at a scheduled deposition and then to remove him from the United States. A second part of Raimondo’s plan was to block Arias’s California Rural Legal Assistance attorney from representing him. This double barrel plan was captured in email messages back and forth between Raimondo, Joe Angelo, and ICE’s forensic auditor Kulwinder Brar.
On May 8, 2013, Arias filed this lawsuit against Angelo Dairy, the Angelos, and Raimondo in the Eastern District of California. Arias alleged that the defendants violated section 215(a)(3) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq.
Arias’s theory of his case is that Raimondo, acting as the Angelos’ agent, retaliated against him in violation of section 215(a)(3) for filing his original case against Raimondo’s clients in state court . Raimondo’s sole legal defense is that because he was never Arias’s actual employer, he cannot be held liable under the FLSA for retaliation against someone who was never his employee.
As noted by the court, Angelo Dairy and its owners settled their part of this case at the early stages of its existence.
The district court dismissed plaintiff’s claims against the defendants’ attorney holding that he was not covered under the FLSA’s retaliation provisions because he was not plaintiff’s employer. Noting that the FLSA’s retaliation provision defines those subject to liability in a much broader way than the underlying definition of employer (which is broad to begin with) the Ninth Circuit reversed.
Discussing the issue before it the court explained:
Notwithstanding section 215(a)(3)’s reference to “any person,” section 203(a)’ s inclusion of a legal representative as a “person,” and section 203(d)’s plain language defining “employer,” the district court granted Raimondo’s motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The court did so without the benefit of oral argument, concluding that because Arias “ha[d] not alleged that [Raimondo] exercised any control over [his] employment relationship,” Raimondo as a matter of law could not be Arias’s employer.
The Ninth Circuit rejected this reasoning noting that the statutory definition of those who may be subject to liability under the FLSA’s retaliation provision include a broader spectrum of people:
Section 215(a)(3), an anti-retaliation provision, makes it unlawful “for any person … to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint … under or related to this chapter.” The FLSA defines the term “person” to include a “legal representative.” Id. § 203(a). Section 216(b) in turn creates a private right of action against any “employer” who violates section 215(a)(3); and the FLSA defines “employer” to include “any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee.” Id. §§ 203(d), 216(b).
Controversies under FLSA sections 206 and 207 that require a determination of primary workplace liability for wage and hour responsibilities and violations, on one hand, and controversies arising from retaliation against employees for asserting their legal rights, on the other, are as different as chalk is from cheese. Each category has a different purpose. It stands to reason that the former relies in application on tests involving economic control and economic realities to determine who is an employer, because by definition it is the actual employer who controls substantive wage and hours issues.
Retaliation is a different animal altogether. Its purpose is to enable workers to avail themselves of their statutory rights in court by invoking the legal process designed by Congress to protect them. Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337, 346 (1997) (the “primary purpose of antiretaliation provisions” is to “[m]aintai[n] unfettered access to statutory remedial mechanisms”).
This distctive purpose is not served by importing an “economic control” or an “economic realities” test as a line of demarcation into the issue of who may be held liable for retaliation. To the contrary, the FLSA itself recognizes this sensible distinction in section 215(a)(3) by prohibiting “any person” –not just an actual employer – from engaging in retaliatory conduct. By contrast, the FLSA’s primary wage and hour obligations are unambiguously imposed only on an employee’s de facto “employer,” as that term is defined in the statute. Treating “any person” who was not a worker’s actual employer as primarily responsible for wage and hour violations would be nonsensical…
Congress made it illegal for any person, not just an “employer” as defined under the statute, to retaliate against any employee for reporting conduct “under” or “related to” violations of the federal minimum wage or maximum hour laws, whether or not the employer’s conduct does in fact violate those laws. … Moreover, “the remedial nature of the statute further warrants an expansive interpretation of its provisions. …” Id. at 857 (second omission in original) (quoting Herman v. RSR Sec. Servs., 172 F.3d 132, 139 (2d Cir. 1999)).
In line with this reasoning, the court concluded:
The FLSA is “remedial and humanitarian in purpose. We are not here dealing with mere chattels or articles of trade but with the rights of those who toil, of those who sacrifice a full measure of their freedom and talents to the use and profit of others …. Such a statute must not be interpreted or applied in a narrow, grudging manner.” Tenn. Coal, Iron & R.R. Co. v. Muscoda Local No. 123, 321 U.S. 590, 597 (1944).
Accordingly, we conclude that Arias may proceed with this retaliation action against Raimondo under FLSA sections 215(a)(3) and 216(b). Raimondo’s behavior as alleged in Arias’s complaint manifestly falls within the purview, the purpose, and the plain language of FLSA sections 203(a), 203(d), and 215(a)(3).
Our interpretation of these provisions is limited to retaliation claims. It does not make non-actual employers like Raimondo liable in the first instance for any of the substantive wage and hour economic provisions listed in the FLSA. As illustrated by the Court’s opinion in Burlington, the substantive provisions of statutes like Title VII and the FLSA, and their respective anti-retaliation provisions, stand on distinctive grounds and shall be treated differently in interpretation and application. Ultimately a retaliator like Raimondo may become secondarily liable pursuant to section 216(b) for economic reparations, but only as a measure of penalties for his transgressions.
Click Arias v. Raimondo to read the entire opinion.
5th Cir.: Department Head Who Notified Employer of Potential FLSA Violations Did Not Engage in Protected Activity, Because She Did Not “Step Outside Her Normal Job Role”
Lasater v. Texas A & M University-Commerce
This case was before the Fifth Circuit on appeal of an order awarding the defendant summary judgment on plaintiff’s FLSA retaliation claim. Specifically, the plaintiff, a former department head for the defendant asserted that she was terminated for raising concerns regarding the defendant’s payroll policies (and failure to comply with the FLSA) to an independent auditor and later her supervisors. The court below held that plaintiff failed to allege that she had engaged in protected activity, because she was merely performing her duties for defendant when she reported her concerns regarding non-compliance. The Fifth Circuit agreed and affirmed the award of summary judgment for the defendant.
The Fifth Circuit recited the following factual history:
This case arises from TAMUC’s termination of Lasater’s employment in December 2009. From March 2006 to December 2009, Lasater was employed as the Director of the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships at TAMUC. Prior to that, Lasater worked in the Financial Aid Department at Texas A & M University–Corpus Christi for 17 years.
In November 2008, Lasater met with Lori Ellison, an outside auditor from The Texas A & M University System who was conducting a regularly scheduled audit. During the meeting, Lasater alleges that Ellison asked her if she had any “concerns” and Lasater told her that “there were some things that were of concern to me and I felt like I needed to, in good faith, report some things that I thought were violations, including comp time.” Lasater alleges that in the course of the conversation with Ellison she discussed a number of problems related to the university’s employee compensatory time (“comp time”) policy. First, she was concerned that comp time had to be used before vacation time; because vacation time would be lost if not taken before the end of the year, this could in turn cause employees to lose accrued comp time. She also voiced her concerns that employees in her department had accrued large balances of comp time and were too busy for Lasater to allow them to timely use their comp time and still meet the demands of her office. Third, she specifically expressed her concerns about one of her employees, Diane Lewis, who had been promoted to a position within the department exempt from the overtime requirements of the FLSA and TAMUC had declined Lasater’s request that Lewis be paid for her accrued comp time after her promotion. Finally, Lasater alleges that she reported to Ellison her concerns about the operation of TAMUC’s Financial Services division, including its failure to “draw down” its allotted federal funds and the fact that it was not performing monthly reconciliations related to federal funds for financial aid. At the time of the meeting Lasater did not suggest to Ellison that TAMUC policies regarding comp time violated the FLSA or refer to any applicable law she believed had been violated.
Relevant TAMUC policy provides that employees who are not exempt under the FLSA may earn comp time for working more than forty hours per week; the policy requires component universities to compensate employees by giving them time off rather than paying them overtime. TAMUC policy also provided that administrators who supervise staff were to ensure that no employee accrue a comp time balance in excess of 240 hours and that, if necessary, employees were to use comp time before taking vacation time. Lasater, as a supervisor, had the responsibility for approving, and the authority to deny, employee leave requests. The policy also states that an employee who transfers between departments may, upon the department managers’ agreement, be paid for accumulated comp time but no policy required payment for comp time to an employee promoted within a department. TAMUC policy additionally provides that inquiries or interpretations of FLSA legal issues should be directed to the System Human Resources Office or the Office of General Counsel.
In December 2008, Ellison reported Lasater’s concerns up the chain of command to Lasater’s supervisor, Stephanie Holley; Mary Hendrix, Vice President for Student Access and Success; and Dan Jones, President of TAMUC. Lasater alleges that shortly after her conversation with the auditor Holley and Hendrix demanded to know why she had reported the comp time issue and began to act colder toward her, harassed her, increased their scrutiny of her, and forced her to take unqualified employees.
In May 2009, Holley gave Lasater a favorable evaluation, and in August, Lasatar received a merit raise. In September 2009, Holley and Hendrix met with Lasater and discussed their concerns about the need for a training manual, the role of Lewis, and how Lasater was not “allowing other people into [her] inner circle.” In early December 2009, Rose Giles, one of Lasater’s subordinates, approached Holley to discuss her frustration with the fact that she did not feel Lasater’s staff was properly trained. Holley then spoke with Susan Grove, the Assistant Director of Scholarships, who alleged that Lasater did not adequately train her staff, spent most of her time with co-employee Lewis to the exclusion of all others, repeatedly arrived late, and had a tendency to “lash out.” Grove stated that she was so distressed by Lasater’s management style that she was planning to leave the university. On December 15, 2009, Holley and Hendrix informed Lasater that her employment was terminated.
Discussing the type of behavior a management-level employee must engage in, for such behavior/activity to constitute “protected activity,” the court explained:
[T]his circuit has recognized that an employee’s communication does not constitute a complaint unless that employee “somehow steps outside of his normal job role” so as to make clear to the employer that the employee is “taking a position adverse to the employer.” Id. at 627–28. Such a requirement is “eminently sensible for management employees” because a managerial position “necessarily involves being mindful of the needs and concerns of both sides and appropriately expressing them.” Id. at 628. Thus, voicing “concerns is not only not adverse to the company’s interests, it is exactly what the company expects of a manger.” Id. (emphasis in original). Without such a requirement, “nearly every activity in the normal course of a manager’s job would be protected activity.” Id.
Illustratively, a personnel director responsible for monitoring compliance with workplace laws did not engage in protected activity when she discussed her “concerns about the company’s possible FLSA violations” with the president of the company. McKenzie v. Renberg’s Inc., 94 F.3d 1478, 1481 (10th Cir.1996). The Tenth Circuit found her “job responsibilities” included discussing wage issues and that assisting the company with FLSA compliance was “completely consistent with her duties.” Hagan, 529 F.3d at 627 (quoting McKenzie, 94 F.3d at 1487). It held that it is “the assertion of statutory rights (i.e., the advocacy of rights) by taking some action adverse to the company … that is the hallmark of protected activity.” Id. (emphasis in original) (quoting McKenzie, 94 F.3d at 1486). Thus because McKenzie “never crossed the line from being an employee merely performing her job as personnel director to an employee lodging a personal complaint about the wage and hour practices of her employer and asserting a right adverse to the company,” her discussion of her FLSA violation concerns with the president could not reasonably “be perceived as directed towards the assertion of rights protected by the FLSA.” Id. (emphasis in original) (quoting McKenzie, 94 F.3d at 1486–87).
Applying this standard to the facts at bar, the court held that the plaintiff failed to show she stepped outside of her normal job role in reporting her concerns regarding the defendant’s comp time system to the auditor and to her supervisors. Further, the court noted that even if she had, her actions could not reasonably be construed to have asserted FLSA rights on behalf of herself or the employees who were the subject of her conversations. Thus, the court affirmed summary judgment for the defendant.
Click Lasater v. Texas A & M University-Commerce to read the entire per curiam decision.
U.S.S.C.: Oral Complaints Are Sufficient to Trigger the Anti-Retaliation Provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act
Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.
Kasten brought an anti-retaliation suit against his former employer, respondent (Saint-Gobain), under 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). In a related suit, the District Court found that Saint-Gobain violated the Act by placing timeclocks in a location that prevented workers from receiving credit for the time they spent donning and doffing work related protective gear. In this case Kasten claimed that he was discharged because he orally complained to company officials about the timeclocks. Holding that such oral complaints were not protected activity, the trial court granted the respondent summary judgment. Subsequently, the Seventh Circuit affirmed. Reversing, the Supreme Court held that the scope of statutory term “filed any complaint” includes oral, as well as written, complaints.
Click Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. to read the entire decision.
Supreme Court Agrees To Decide Whether A Verbal Complaint To An Employer Is Sufficient To Trigger FLSA Anti-Retaliation Protections
Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.
The Supreme Court has granted certiorari to decide whether the question:
“Is an oral complaint of a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act protected conduct under the anti-retaliation provision, 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3)?”
In a decision discussed here, the 7th Circuit previously held that “any complaint” includes an employee’s internal complaint to his or her own company. However, the Court also held that an employee who complains verbally, not in writing, has not engaged in statutorily protected activity, so he or she is not protected by the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision.
Following the decision, the Plaintiff sought a rehearing en banc. In the decision denying a rehearing en banc, three 7th Circuit judges dissented. The dissenting judges noted that the 7th Circuit was the only Circuit to construe the definition of protected activity so narrowly. Now the Supreme Court will decide whether they were right, or whether the remedial nature of the FLSA supports protection from retaliation for those who make verbal complaints, but not complaints in writing.
N.D.Cal.: Internal Complaint Regarding Sick Leave Not Protected From Retaliation Under 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3), Because Sick Leave Not Covered By The FLSA
Byrd v. California Superior Court, County of Marin
Among the issues before the Court, was whether a request for sick leave, and alleged retaliation resulting therefrom is protected under section 215 of the FLSA, the anti-retaliation provision. Finding that it is not, the Court explained,
“Defendant argues that section 215 of the FLSA is inapplicable to this case because plaintiff’s internal complaint concerned sick leave, for which there is no provision in the FLSA. Section 215(a)(3) provides that it is unlawful “[t]o discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this act.”29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3).
The FLSA covers wage and hour violations and is intended as a “remedial statute.” Lambert v. Ackerley, 180 F.3d 997,1007 (9th Cir.1990). FLSA must “not be interpreted or applied in a narrow, grudging manner.” Id. at 1003,citing Tenn. Coal, Iron & R. Co. v. Muscoda Local No. 123, 321 U.S. 590, 597 (1944).Section 215 was enacted to ensure that employees who lodge complaints could do so free of fear of economic retaliation. Mitchell v. Robert DeMario Jewelry, Inc., 361 U.S. 288, 292-93 (1960).
The internal complaint at issue concerned allegations of harassment and discrimination in response to plaintiff’s taking sick leave. Sick leave is not explicitly covered under the FLSA. FLSA cases concern, by and large, monetary compensation, or other compensation only insofar as it can be translated into monetary compensation. See, e.g., Lambert, 180 F.3d at 1010 (concerning overtime compensation); Acton v. City of Columbia, 436 F.3d 969 (8th Cir.2006) (holding that sick leave “buy back” monies should be included in employee’s regular rate of pay under FLSA) reh’g denied; cf. Featsent v. City of Youngstown, 70 F.2d 1456 (6th Cir.1995) (holding that sick leave “buy back” monies should not be included in an employee’s regular rate of pay under FLSA). From the available cases, interference with the sick leave claim alleged here does not “relate to” the FLSA. Accordingly, harassment and discrimination as a result of taking sick leave would also not be “related to” the FLSA.
Based on the complaint as filed, the court does not believe that plaintiff can allege any facts that would bring her internal complaint concerning harassment and discrimination in response to her taking sick leave within the purview of section 215. Even if plaintiff’s internal complaint could be construed to be a complaint about “interference with” sick leave, which was not alleged until after she filed her instant complaint (see Compl. ¶ 38), such allegations are still not under or related to the FLSA. Accordingly, the Superior Court’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s thirteenth cause of action is GRANTED without leave to amend.”
7th Cir.: Although Internal Complaint OK To Trigger Anti-Retaliation Protections of 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3), Verbal Complaints Insufficient; Must Be Written
Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.
Plaintiff Kevin Kasten appeals the district court’s grant of summary judgment to defendant Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation (“Saint-Gobain”). Kasten claims that the district court erred in its interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act when it determined that Kasten had not suffered retaliation within the meaning of the statute. For the reasons explained below, we affirm the judgment of the district court.
The relevant testimony pertaining to Plaintiff’s claims were detailed as follows, “Plaintiff alleges (though defendant disputes) that from October through December, 2006, he verbally complained to his supervisors about the legality of the location of Saint-Gobain’s time clocks. Specifically, Kasten claims that he told his supervisors that the location of the Kronos clocks prevented employees from being paid for time spent donning and doffing their required protective gear. Regarding his complaints, plaintiff alleges (1) that he told Dennis Woolverton (his shift supervisor) that he believed the location of defendant’s time clocks was illegal; (2) that he told Lani Williams (a Human Resources generalist) that the location of the time clocks was illegal; (3) that he told April Luther (a “Lead Operator” and apparently another of Kasten’s supervisors) that the location of the time clocks was illegal; and (4) that he told Luther that he was thinking of commencing a lawsuit regarding the location of defendant’s time clocks. Saint-Gobain denies that Kasten ever told any of his supervisors or any human resources personnel that he believed that the clock locations were illegal.”
Throughout the period when Plaintiff claims he complained, he received several write-ups, and was ultimately terminated. He claimed that this retaliatory behavior resulted from his oral internal complaints (which the Defendant denied). Kasten filed suit under the FLSA, claiming that he had been terminated in retaliation for his verbal complaints regarding the location of the time clocks. The district court granted summary judgment to defendant, finding that Kasten had not engaged in protected activity because he had not “filed any complaint” about the allegedly illegal location of the time clocks. Kasten appeals.
First, tackling the issue of internal complaints as a trigger for 215 protection, the Court determined they were, explaining, “The Seventh Circuit has not directly addressed whether internal complaints are protected activity under the FLSA’s retaliation provision, though we have reviewed two cases involving internal complaints without commenting on the matter. See Scott v. Sunrise Health Care Corp., 195 F.3d 938, 940-41 (7th Cir.1999) (affirming dismissal of FLSA retaliation case because plaintiff had not shown a causal connection between her complaints and her later discharge); see also Shea v. Galaxie Lumber Constr. Co., 152 F.3d 729, 731, 734-36 (7th Cir.1998) (reversing a denial of punitive damages in a case where an employee had been discharged after complaining to the company president).
Statutory interpretation begins with “the language of the statute itself [and] [a]bsent a clearly expressed legislative intention to the contrary, that language must ordinarily be regarded as conclusive.” Sapperstein v. Hager, 188 F.3d 852, 857 (7th Cir.1999) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) (interpreting retaliation provision of FLSA but not discussing whether internal complaints were protected conduct); see also Consumer Prod. Safety Comm’n v. GTE Sylvania, 447 U.S. 102, 107 (1980). Here, the plain language of the statute indicates that internal, intracompany complaints are protected. The retaliation provision states that it is “unlawful for any person to discharge … any employee because such employee has filed any complaint…. “29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3) (emphasis added). As Kasten points out, the statute does not limit the types of complaints which will suffice, and in fact modifies the word “complaint” with the word “any.” Thus, the language of the statute would seem to include internal, intra-company complaints as protected activity.
The majority of circuit courts considering the question have also found that “any complaint” includes internal complaints. See Hagan v. Echostar Satellite, LLC, 529 F.3d 617, 625 (5th Cir.2008) (internal complaint constitutes protected activity); Moore v. Freeman, 355 F.3d 558 (6th Cir.2004) (informal complaints are protected activity); Lambert v. Ackerly, 180 F.3d 1004, 1004 (9th Cir.1999) (section 15(a)(3) protects “employees who complain about violations to their employers”); Valerio v. Putnam Associates, Inc., 173 F.3d 35, 41 (1st Cir.1999) (“By failing to specify that the filing of any complaint need be with a court or an agency, and by using the word ‘any,’ Congress left open the possibility that it intended ‘complaint’ to relate to less formal expressions of protest … conveyed to an employer.”); EEOC v.. White & Son Enterprises, 881 F.2d 1006, 1011 (11th Cir.1989) (employees’ internal complaints to supervisor about unequal pay were assertions of rights under the Equal Pay Act, part of the FLSA); Love v. RE/MAX of America, Inc., 738 F.2d 383, 387 (10th Cir.1984) (same); but see Ball v. Memphis Bar-B-Q Co., 228 F.3d 360, 363-365 (4th Cir.2000) (holding that 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3) does not protect internal complaints).
Because we conclude, in line with the vast majority of circuit courts to consider this issue, that the plain language of 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3) includes internal complaints as protected activity, we affirm the judgment of the district court in this regard.
The Court then turned to the sufficiency of unwritten/verbal complaints. “The next question pertinent to this appeal is whether unwritten, purely verbal complaints are protected activity under the statute.
Again, we start with the language of the statute. Sapperstein, 188 F.3d at 857. The FLSA’s retaliation provision prohibits “discharg[ing] … any employee because such employee has filed any complaint….”29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3) (emphasis added). The district court reasoned:
Expressing an oral complaint is not the same as filing a complaint. By definition, the word “file” refers to “a collection of papers, records, etc., arranged in a convenient order,” Random House Webster’s College Dictionary 489 (2d ed.1999), or, when used in verb form as it is in the statute, “[t]o deliver (a paper or instrument) to the proper officer so that it is received by him to kept on file, or among the records of his office,” Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language 945 (2d ed.1958). One cannot “file” an oral complaint; there is no document, such as a paper or record, to deliver to someone who can put it in its proper place.
Plaintiff disagrees with this interpretation. He argues that “to file” is a broad term that has several meanings, including, generally, “to submit.”
Looking only at the language of the statute, we believe that the district court correctly concluded that unwritten, purely verbal complaints are not protected activity. The use of the verb “to file” connotes the use of a writing. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines the verb “to file” as
1. to arrange in order for preservation and reference <“file letters”> 2. a: to place among official records as prescribed by law <“file a mortgage”> b: to perform the first act of (as a lawsuit) <“threatened to file charges against him”>
This definition accords with what we believe to be the common understanding of the verb “to file.” Although Kasten and the Secretary of Labor claim that “to file” can mean, generally, “to submit,” this seems to us overbroad. If an individual told a friend that she “filed a complaint with her employer,” we doubt the friend would understand her to possibly mean that she merely voiced displeasure to a supervisor. Rather, the natural understanding of the phrase “file any complaint” requires the submission of some writing to an employer, court, or administrative body. See United States v. Bank of Farmington, 166 F.3d 853, 860 (7th Cir.1999) (“Words in a statute are to be given their plain and ordinary meaning.”) (citing United States v. James, 478 U.S. 597, 604 (1986)).
Other circuit courts that have tackled this issue are split. The Fourth Circuit found that verbal complaints were not protected activity in Ball v. Memphis Bar-B-Q Co., Inc., 228 F.3d 360, 364 (4th Cir.2000). The court recognized that the FLSA’s “statutory language clearly places limits on the range of retaliation proscribed by the act.”Specifically, in interpreting the “testimony” clause of the FLSA’s retaliation provision, the Fourth Circuit held that the FLSA “prohibits retaliation for testimony given or about to be given but not for an employee’s voicing of a position on working conditions in opposition to an employer.”Id. (emphasis added). Although the Fourth Circuit acknowledged that the retaliation in that case-which followed an employee’s statement to the company president that, if he were deposed in a lawsuit, he would not testify to the president’s suggested version of events-was “morally unacceptable,” the court concluded that a faithful interpretation of the statute did not recognize mere statements to a supervisor as a protected activity. Id.; see also Lambert v. Genesee Hospital, 10 F.3d 46, 55 (2d Cir.1993) (“The plain language of this provision limits the cause of action to retaliation for filing formal complaints, instituting a proceeding, or testifying, but does not encompass complaints made to a supervisor.”) (citations omitted).
Other courts have found oral complaints to be protected activity, but it is difficult to draw guidance from these decisions because many of them do not specifically state whether the complaint in question was written or purely verbal, and none discusses the statute’s use of the verb “to file” and whether it requires a writing. See EEOC v. Romeo Community Schools, 976 F.2d 985, 989-90 (6th Cir.1992) (holding, without discussion of the verbal/written distinction, that plaintiff’s apparently oral complaints to supervisors were protected activity); EEOC v. White & Son Enters., 881 F.2d 1006, 1011 (11th Cir.1989) (holding, without discussion of the verbal/written distinction, that plaintiffs’ oral complaints were protected activity); Brock v. Richardson, 812 F.2d 121, 125 (8th Cir.1987) (holding, without discussion of the verbal/written distinction, that defendant’s mistaken belief that plaintiff had made apparently oral complaints to supervisors was grounds for suit); Brennan v. Maxey’s Yamaha, 513 F.2d 179, 183 (8th Cir.1975) (holding, without discussion of the verbal/written distinction, that employee’s “voicing” of concern was protected activity).
Despite these contrary findings by some other circuits, our interpretation of the phrase “file any complaint” is confirmed by the fact that Congress could have, but did not, use broader language in the FLSA’s retaliation provision. For example, analogous provisions in other statutes, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, forbid employers from retaliating against any employee who “has opposed any practice” that is unlawful under the statutes. See42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a); 29 U.S .C. § 623(d). This broader phrase, “opposed any practice,” does not require a “fil[ing],” and has been interpreted to protect verbal complaints. See, e.g., Kotcher v. Rosa and Sullivan Appliance Ctr., Inc., 957 F.2d 59, 65 (2d Cir.1992). Congress’s selection of the narrower “file any complaint” language in the FLSA thus appears to be significant. See Ball, 228 F.3d at 364 (noting that “Congress has crafted … broader anti-retaliation provisions elsewhere” but “the cause of action for retaliation under the FLSA is much more circumscribed”); Genesee Hospital, 10 F.3d at 55 (noting that the FLSA uses narrower language in its retaliation provision than Title VII).
Finally, we are aware that ” ‘the remedial nature of the [FLSA] … warrants an expansive interpretation of its provisions….’ ” Sapperstein, 188 F.3d at 857 (quoting Herman v. RSR Security Services, 172 F.3d 132, 139 (2d Cir.1999)). But expansive interpretation is one thing; reading words out of a statute is quite another. Because we believe that the FLSA’s use of the phrase “file any complaint” requires a plaintiff employee to submit some sort of writing, we agree with the district court’s conclusion that Kasten’s alleged complaints were not protected activity under the statute.”
Thus, the Court affirmed the lower Court’s ruling, finding that Plaintiff’s internal, but verbal complaints were insufficient and therefore unprotected.
E.D.Mo.: Informal Workplace Complaints Are Not “Protected Activity” Under § 215(a)(3)
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.