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8th Cir.: Informal Input Regarding Personnel Decisions Does Not Satisfy Hire/Fire Prong of Executive Exemption
Madden v. Lumber One Home Center, Inc.
Following a jury verdict in favor of the defendant-employer below, the trial court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, holding that—as a matter of law—defendant had failed to satisfy its burden of proof regarding the executive exemption. Defendant appealed and the Eighth Circuit affirmed with respect to two of the plaintiffs, but reversed as to one. As discussed here, the Eighth Circuit’s analysis focused on the hire/fire prong of the executive exemption. Significantly, the court explained in detail what types of involvement in personnel decisions rise to the level required for application of the executive exemption.
Initially the court restated the applicable regulation:
We determine whether an employee meets the executive exemption by applying Department of Labor regulations. See Fife v. Bosley, 100 F.3d 87, 89 (8th Cir.1996). The Department of Labor defines an “executive” employee—that is, one exempt from FLSA requirements relating to overtime pay—as follows:
(a) The term ’employee employed in a bona fide executive capacity’ in section 13(a)(1) of the Act shall mean any employee:
(1) Compensated on a salary basis at a rate of not less than $455 per week (or $380 per week, if employed in American Samoa by employers other than the Federal Government), exclusive of board, lodging or other facilities;
(2) Whose primary duty is management of the enterprise in which the employee is employed or of a customarily recognized department or subdivision thereof;
(3) Who customarily and regularly directs the work of two or more other employees; and
(4) Who has the authority to hire or fire other employees or whose suggestions and recommendations as to the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion or any other change of status of other employees are given particular weight.
The court then framed the issue before it:
At issue in this case is whether the plaintiffs’ job duties met the requirements of the fourth element. In other words, we must determine whether the jury was presented with evidence that reasonably would support an inference that the plaintiffs had the ability to hire and fire other employees, or that their hiring recommendations were given “particular weight.” The Department of Labor defines “particular weight” as follows:
To determine whether an employee’s suggestions and recommendations are given ‘particular weight,’ factors to be considered include, but are not limited to, whether it is part of the employee’s job duties to make such suggestions and recommendations; the frequency with which such suggestions and recommendations are made or requested; and the frequency with which the employee’s suggestions and recommendations are relied upon. Generally, an executive’s suggestions and recommendations must pertain to employees whom the executive customarily and regularly directs. It does not include an occasional suggestion with regard to the change in status of a co-worker. An employee’s suggestions and recommendations may still be deemed to have ‘particular weight’ even if a higher level manager’s recommendation has more importance and even if the employee does not have authority to make the ultimate decision as to the employee’s change in status. 29 C.F.R. § 541.105. The district court, in granting the plaintiffs’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, found that Lumber One presented no evidence that the plaintiffs had the authority to make personnel decisions or that Morton gave their hiring recommendations particular weight.
Clarifying what type and amount of input into personnel decisions satisfies an employer’s burden regarding the executive exemption, the Eighth Circuit explained:
We first address what type and what amount of input into personnel decisions is sufficient to satisfy the fourth element of the FLSA’s executive exemption. Second, we look at the evidence in this case. We conclude that Lumber One failed to show that Madden and O’Bar met the executive exemption standard but that Lumber One did prove that Wortman was eligible for the executive exemption.
Courts previously addressing what is required by the fourth element of the FLSA executive exemption suggest that more than informal input, solicited from all employees, is needed to prove applicability of the executive exemption. See, e.g., Lovelady v. Allsup’s Convenience Stores, Inc., 304 F. App’x 301, 306 (5th Cir.2005) (per curiam) (unpublished) (affirming the district court’s decision that plaintiff-store managers met the fourth element because their hiring recommendations were almost always followed and they could fire employees without obtaining authorization from a higher manager); Grace v. Family Dollar Stores, Inc., 845 F.Supp.2d 653, 663 (W.D.N.C.2012) (finding fourth element satisfied because plaintiff, a store manager, selected applicants for interviews, conducted interviews, and recommended employees for promotions and demotions, and her recommendations were almost always followed by the district manager); Rainey v. McWane, Inc., 552 F.Supp.2d 626, 632 (E.D.Tex.2008) (finding fourth element satisfied because plaintiff, a production supervisor, completed weekly employee evaluations, recommended employee discipline, and recommended which temporary employees should be hired permanently); Goulas v. LaGreca, No. 12–898, 2013 WL 2477030, at *10 (E.D. La. June 7, 2013) (finding fourth element satisfied because the employer was grooming the plaintiff to eventually take over the company, and the employer terminated employees based on plaintiff’s recommendations). These cases provide useful guidance for understanding what is needed to satisfy the fourth element of the executive exemption. After looking at the different factors these courts used to find the fourth element satisfied, including the offering of personnel recommendations that were acted upon by managers, involvement in screening applicants for interviews, and participation in interviews, among others, it is apparent that many different employee duties and levels of involvement can work to satisfy this fourth element. When we look at the evidence regarding how Lumber One utilized Madden and O’Bar in this case, however, we find that it simply does not meet the standard. Cf. 5 C.F.R. 551.202(e) (“[T]he designation of an employee as FLSA exempt or nonexempt must ultimately rest on the duties actually performed by the employee.”).
Discussing the law in the context of this case, the Eighth Circuit explained:
The evidence presented at trial concerning the plaintiffs’ duties consisted solely of testimony from the plaintiffs, Morton, and office manager Amy Quimby. Morton testified that none of the plaintiffs hired or fired other employees. Therefore, in order to satisfy the fourth element, Lumber One needed to present evidence at trial that the plaintiffs were consulted about personnel decisions and that Morton gave each of their opinions particular weight regarding specific hiring decisions. Prior to hiring a new employee, Morton generally asked all of the Mayflower employees if they knew the applicant and could provide information about that person, and Lumber One believes this is sufficient to support the jury’s verdict.
At trial, Morton generically described how he elicited input from employees about applicants and how he used the information he received. For example, when asked if the plaintiffs were ever consulted during the screening process for new applicants, Morton responded: “[W]e would always ask all of our people if they knew someone before we hired them. When we would be interviewing them, we would ask for input from them because these guys were from the local area and we’d always ask if they knew the people or could recommend or knew anything at all about them.” Morton also said he took this information seriously, adding that “it was good information. We’re hiring blind here, so any input we could have or reference, it was used in making that determination.” Lumber One did not present any evidence that the plaintiffs were involved in, for instance, screening applicants, conducting interviews, checking references, or anything else related to its hiring process.
In determining that Lumber One’s practice of soliciting informal recommendations from all staff members is insufficient to meet the fourth element of the executive exemption, we find Rooney v. Town of Groton, 577 F.Supp.2d 513 (D.Mass.2008), instructive. In Rooney, the court held that a police lieutenant satisfied all of the requirements for designation as an exempt executive employee. Id. at 523–32. Concerning the fourth element, the court noted that the lieutenant was a member of an interview panel that ranked applicants, discussed the merits of applicants, and made hiring recommendations. Id. at 531. In addition, the police chief took the lieutenant’s opinion into consideration when determining which employees to promote. Id. While the lieutenant had no control over the ultimate hiring and personnel decisions, the court found that he was sufficiently involved in the hiring process to classify him as an exempt executive employee. Id.
Rooney specifically addresses Lumber One’s argument that Morton could have given the plaintiffs’ recommendations particular weight even though he asked all of his employees for input. In Rooney, the lieutenant characterized his recommendations to the police chief as the same type of recommendation an ordinary patrolman could provide to the chief, so he should not have been classified as an exempt employee. Rooney, 577 F.Supp.2d at 531. The court rejected his argument, finding that the lieutenant’s recommendations were given more weight than an ordinary patrolman. The court concluded that “the regulation does not state that Rooney must be the only officer in the department whose recommendations and suggestions are given particular weight, but rather that a ‘higher level manager’s recommendation [may have] more importance.’ ” Id. (citing 29 C.F.R. § 541.105).
In the present case, Morton testified that he solicited input from all employees. He did not testify that some employees’ input had more influence than others. Lumber One argues that requiring Morton to testify that he placed “particular weight” on each plaintiff’s input, as Lumber One claims the district court did in the order granting the plaintiffs’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, is unfair because it requires a lay person to use legal jargon in his testimony. We agree that Morton was not required to use the exact phrase “particular weight.” Morton could have used any number of words to convey that he gave the plaintiffs’ recommendations special consideration when making hiring decisions. The material point, however, is that in order to meet the fourth element of the executive exemption, Lumber One must present some proof that the purported executives’ input into personnel decisions was given particular weight. 29 C.F.R. § 541.105. For example, one way they could have done this is to show that the purported executives’ input had more influence than hourly employee’ input. This is especially true if that recommendation is the only evidence relied on for the exemption, which is what happened in this case.
Lumber One also argues that because the business was struggling financially in 2008 and did not hire many employees, the plaintiffs were simply unable to participate in personnel decisions because none were being made. In this regard, we note that the Office of Personnel Management’s regulation stating that FLSA exemptions are based on actual job functions, not intended responsibilities, is persuasive in this circumstance. See 5 C.F.R. § 551.202(e) (noting that FLSA exemptions are based on “duties actually performed by the employee”). The Rooney court acknowledged that the police department in that case was small and that its size should be a factor “taken into account when determining the frequency of recommendations made by the plaintiff. It is reasonable to assume that generally a smaller police department would have correspondingly fewer new hires, fires, and promotions.” 577 F.Supp.2d at 531. The same is true with Lumber One. Morton estimated that he hired between six and eight employees during the time the plaintiffs were employed at Lumber One. Morton testified that he generally asked all of the employees if they knew applicants, but there is no evidence that the plaintiffs had any sort of involvement in the hiring process like the lieutenant in Rooney. The plaintiffs did not participate in the interviews, did not review resumes, did not rank applicants, and did not make hiring recommendations outside of informal reference checks. Contra id. at 522 (“[Rooney] has acted as a member of an interview panel, ranked applicants on account of their suitability for the position, discussed the merits of applicants, made applicant recommendations to the Chief regarding the applicant’s suitability, discussed the potential promotion of a Patrolman to the rank of Sergeant, and discussed the assignment of an officer to an administrative position[.]”). And Morton asked all employees for informal reference checks, not just the plaintiffs. Morton asserts that he would have involved the plaintiffs more if he had hired more employees. This may be true, but it requires the jury to impermissibly speculate and to rely on intended rather than actual job functions. See Clark v. Long, 255 F.3d 555, 557 (8th Cir.2001) (“[When ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, t]he nonmovant receives the benefit of all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the evidence, but those inferences may not be based solely on speculation.” (emphasis added)).
Having fleshed out the applicable law and the parties’ respective arguments, the court initially explained why two of the plaintiffs were properly held to be non-exempt:
Against this backdrop, we now turn to the evidence regarding each individual plaintiff. At trial, Morton could not recall Madden or O’Bar providing a single personnel recommendation. Morton stated that he could only recall the company’s “general policy there as to how we did that.” In response to the question, “Did any of the plaintiffs hire Lumber One employees?” Morton responded, “No, they didn’t. Well, Doug [Wortman] was involved in hiring some of the truck drivers.” When questioned if O’Bar ever provided a recommendation for an applicant, Morton responded, “Not that I recall.” Morton said he intended to include O’Bar in the hiring process, but because Lumber One was not hiring while she was employed, she never had the opportunity to participate. Later in the trial, counsel asked Morton if he could remember O’Bar recommending any applicant for hire. Morton responded, “Offhand today, I can’t tell you one, no.”
Morton similarly could not remember Madden being involved in any hiring decision. When asked about Madden, Morton again referenced only the general policy: “Once again, what we would do, anytime that we hired anybody, which we hired very, very few in this time period, and I don’t recall—you know, it depends on what time frame we’re talking about, but we would always ask all of our people if they knew someone before we hired them.” When asked again, “Is it your testimony that [Madden] did not recommend anybody for hiring?” Morton responded, “I do not remember, to be honest with you. I know that we consulted with him or asked him if he knew people.” Morton asserted that he “definitely remember[ed] asking Terry Madden if he knew people that we were interviewing,” but Morton could not provide additional information related to any recommendations Madden may have provided. When asked if Madden hired any employees, Morton replied, “No, ma’am, he did not hire any.”
Morton’s testimony is simply not enough to satisfy the fourth element of the FLSA’s executive exemption for Madden and O’Bar. To be sure, one of the jury’s main responsibilities is to make credibility determinations. However, here the jury was forced to speculate due to Morton’s lack of memory regarding specific recommendations and hiring decisions. Moreover, Morton’s admissions that Madden and O’Bar were not involved directly in hiring contradicts Lumber One’s contentions that the plaintiffs were actually Lumber One executive employees whose input was solicited and considered prior to making personnel decisions. Indeed, for a jury to reach that conclusion, a jury had to speculate that, if Morton were able to recall specifics from 2008 and 2009, he would be able to testify about Madden and O’Bar’s involvement in personnel decisions. This is not a credibility determination; this is speculation. See Wilson, 382 F.3d at 770 (“Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate only when the record contains no proof beyond speculation to support the verdict.”). While it should be rare that a judge elects to override a jury verdict, the district court was correct in this case to do so. See Hunt v. Neb. Pub. Power Dist., 282 F.3d 1021, 1029 (8th Cir.2002) (“We recogniz[e] that the law places a high standard on overturning a jury verdict … because of the danger that the jury’s rightful province will be invaded when judgment as a matter of law is misused.” (internal citation omitted)). Lumber One simply presented no evidence that would allow a jury to determine, without conjecture, that Lumber One satisfied the fourth element with respect to Madden and O’Bar.
The court went on to hold that, applying the same test, there had been sufficient evidence at trial for the jury to hold that the third plaintiff was an exempt executive:
In contrast, we conclude that Lumber One did present sufficient evidence to allow a jury to conclude that Wortman provided a recommendation for at least one employee and that Morton relied on that recommendation when deciding to hire the applicant. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s judgment as to Wortman and reinstate that portion of the jury verdict in favor of Lumber One.
Morton testified at trial that Wortman knew two applicants, truck drivers Fred Dempsey and Anthony Dixon, and that Morton appreciated Wortman’s input regarding both applicants’ qualifications. Morton testified that “we’re brand-new, so I asked everybody there for a reference on any new hire at this point to—and [Wortman] recommended these guys, said they were good folks, Fred [Dempsey] in particular. I think he and Fred had a—somewhat of a friendship maybe in the past.” Morton later asserted that if Wortman had provided a bad recommendation, Morton would not have hired Dempsey. Morton testified that “when we did do that little bit of hiring, we asked everyone. We tapped every resource we had…. [Wortman] would put his stamp of approval on, and I’ll use Fred Dempsey, for instance, you know, if he would have said, no, we don’t want him, he would not have been there.”
Morton’s testimony provided sufficient evidence that reasonably could lead a jury to believe that Wortman provided recommendations about Dempsey and that Morton gave particular weight to Wortman’s recommendation when deciding to hire Dempsey. See 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1); 29 C.F.R. § 541.100. In addition, Wortman testified that although he was not hired to supervise employees, Morton occasionally had him direct the truck drivers, which included Dempsey, regarding where to make deliveries. See
29 C.F.R. § 541.105 (generally requiring that an executive’s recommendations pertain to employees whom the executive directs). Because there is evidence regarding Wortman’s involvement in at least one personnel decision, we conclude that the district court erred by overturning the jury’s verdict finding that Wortman was an executive employee who was exempt from FLSA overtime pay requirements.
Taken together, this opinion is instructive regarding the type and amount of input an employee must have in order to meet the hire/fire prong of the executive exemption.
Click Madden v. Lumber One Home Center, Inc. to read the entire Decision.
8th Cir.: DOL’s 20% Rule, As Applicable to Tipped Employees Entitled to “Chevron” Deference; Relaxed Evidentiary Burden on Employees, Where Employer Failed to Maintain Proper Records Distinguishing Between Tipped and Non-Tipped Duties
Fast v. Applebee’s International, Inc.
This case was before the Eighth Circuit on Applebee’s interlocutory appeal of the district court’s denial of its motion for summary judgment. The primary issue in the case was how to properly apply the “tip credit” to employees whom both sides agree are “tipped employees” but who perform both tipped and non-tipped (dual) jobs for the employer. Relying on 29 C.F.R. § 531.56(e), the district court applied the so-called 20% rule promulgated by the D.O.L., requiring an employer to pay a tipped employee regular minimum wage to employees who spend more than 20% of their work time in a given week performing non-tipped duties. Applebee’s challenged the ruling and asserted that the “dual job” regulations were inconsistent with 29 U.S.C. § 203(m) or the FLSA. Affirming the decision below, the Eighth Circuit held that the D.O.L.’s regulations were entitled to “Chevron” deference and explained:
“Applebee’s argues that neither the statute nor the regulation places a quantitative limit on the amount of time a tipped employee can spend performing duties related to her tipped occupation (but not themselves tip producing) as long as the total tips received plus the cash wages equal or exceed the minimum wage. The regulation, to which we owe Chevron deference, makes a distinction between an employee performing two distinct jobs, one tipped and one not, and an employee performing related duties within an occupation “part of [the] time” and “occasionally.” § 531.56(e). By using the terms “part of [the] time” and “occasionally,” the regulation clearly places a temporal limit on the amount of related duties an employee can perform and still be considered to be engaged in the tip-producing occupation. “Occasionally” is defined as “now and then; here and there; sometimes.” Webster’s Third New Int’l Unabridged Dictionary 1560 (1986); see also United States v. Hackman, 630 F.3d 1078, 1083 (8th Cir. 2011) (using dictionary to determine ordinary meaning of a term used in the commentary to the United States Sentencing Guidelines). The term “occasional” is also used in other contexts within the FLSA, such as in § 207, which allows a government employee to work “on an occasional or sporadic basis” in a different capacity from his regular employment without the occasional work hours being added to the regular work hours for calculating overtime compensation. See 29 U.S.C. § 207(p)(2). The DOL’s regulation defines occasional or sporadic to mean “infrequent, irregular, or occurring in scattered instances.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.30(b)(1). Thus, the DOL’s regulations consistently place temporal limits on regulations dealing with the term “occasional.”
A temporal limitation is also consistent with the majority of cases that address duties related to a tipped occupation. The length of time an employee spends performing a particular “occupation” has been considered relevant in many cases. For example, even when the nontip-producing duties are related to a tipped occupation, if they are performed for an entire shift, the employee is not engaged in a tipped occupation and is not subject to the tip credit for that shift. See, e.g., Myers v. Copper Cellar Corp., 192 F.3d 546, 549-50 (6th Cir. 1999) (noting that 29 C.F.R. § 531.56(e) “illustrat[es] that an employee who discharges distinct duties on diverse work shifts may qualify as a tipped employee during one shift” but not the other and holding that servers who spent entire shifts working as “salad preparers” were employed in dual jobs, even though servers prepared the very same salads when no salad preparer was on duty, such that including salad preparers in a tip pool invalidated the pool); Roussell v. Brinker Int’l, Inc., No. 05-3733, 2008 WL 2714079, **12-13 (S.D. Tex. 2008) (employees who worked entire shift in Quality Assurance (QA) were not tipped employees eligible to be included in tip pool even though servers performed QA duties on shifts when no QA was working; court “agrees that such work likely can be considered incidental to a server’s job when performed intermittently,” but distinguished full shifts). The same is true of nontipped duties performed during distinct periods of time, such as before opening or after closing. See Dole v. Bishop, 740 F. Supp. 1221, 1228 (S.D. Miss. 1990) (“Because [the] cleaning and food preparation duties [performed for substantial periods of time before the restaurant opened] were not incidental to the waitresses’ tipped duties, the waitresses were entitled to the full statutory minimum wage during these periods of time.”). Conversely, where the related duties are performed intermittently and as part of the primary occupation, the duties are subject to the tip credit. See, e.g., Pellon v. Bus. Representation Int’l, Inc., 528 F. Supp. 2d 1306, 1313 (S.D. Fla. 2007) (rejecting skycap employees’ challenge to use of the tip credit where “the tasks that allegedly violate the minimum wage are intertwined with direct tip-producing tasks throughout the day”), aff’d, 291 F. Appx. 310 (11th Cir. 2008).
Because the regulations do not define “occasionally” or “part of [the] time” for purposes of § 531.56(e), the regulation is ambiguous, and the ambiguity supports the DOL’s attempt to further interpret the regulation. See Auer, 519 U.S. at 461. We believe that the DOL’s interpretation contained in the Handbook—which concludes that employees who spend “substantial time” (defined as more than 20 percent) performing related but nontipped duties should be paid at the full minimum wage for that time without the tip credit—is a reasonable interpretation of the regulation. It certainly is not “clearly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.” Id. The regulation places a temporal limit on the amount of related nontipped work an employee can do and still be considered to be performing a tipped occupation. The DOL has used a 20 percent threshold to delineate the line between substantial and nonsubstantial work in various contexts within the FLSA. For example, an “employee employed as seaman on a vessel other than an American vessel” is not entitled to the protection of the minimum wage or overtime provisions of the FLSA. See 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(12). The DOL recognized that seamen serving on such a vessel sometimes perform nonseaman work, to which the FLSA provisions do apply, and it adopted a regulation that provides that a seaman is employed as an exempt seaman even if he performs nonseaman work, as long as the work “is not substantial in amount.” 29 C.F.R. § 783.37. “[S]uch differing work is ‘substantial’ if it occupies more than 20 percent of the time worked by the employee during the workweek.” Id. Similarly, an employee employed in fire protection or law enforcement activities may perform nonexempt work without defeating the overtime exemption in 29 U.S.C. § 207(k) unless the nonexempt work “exceeds 20 percent of the total hours worked by that employee during the workweek.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.212(a). And an individual providing companionship services as defined in 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(15) does not defeat the exemption from overtime pay for that category of employee by performing general household work as long as “such work is incidental, i.e., does not exceed 20 percent of the total weekly hours worked.” 29 C.F.R. § 552.6. The 20 percent threshold used by the DOL in its Handbook is not inconsistent with § 531.56(e) and is a reasonable interpretation of the terms “part of [the] time” and “occasionally” used in that regulation.”
Determining that the issue was not properly before it, the court declined to answer the question of what duties are incidental to the tipped employee duties and what duties are not, stating:
“We note that the parties dispute which specific duties are subject to the 20 percent limit for related duties in a tipped occupation and which duties are the tip producing part of the server’s or bartender’s tipped occupation itself. The regulation lists activities such as “cleaning and setting tables, toasting bread, making coffee and occasionally washing dishes or glasses” as “related duties in . . . a tipped occupation.” § 531.56(e). The Handbook repeats these examples and states that the 20 percent limit applies to “general preparation work or maintenance.” (Appellant’s Add. at 32, DOL Handbook § 30d00(e).) Although the district court stated that “it was for the Court to decide what duties comprise the occupation of a server or bartender” (Dist. Ct. Order at 6 n.3), the order under review did not do so and concluded only that “[e]mployees may be paid the tipped wage rate for performing general preparation and maintenance duties, so long as those duties consume no more than twenty percent of the employees’ working time” (id. at 15). To the extent that questions remain concerning which duties the 20 percent rule applies to, those issues are beyond the scope of this interlocutory appeal, and we do not address them. We hold only that the district court properly concluded that the Handbook’s interpretation of § 531.56(e) governs this case.”
Lastly, citing the Supreme Court’s Mt. Clemens decision, the court held that the “recordkeeping rule” applies in situations where the employer fails to maintain sufficient records to distinguish between time spent performing tipped duties and non-tipped duties.
Click Fast v. Applebee’s International, Inc. to read the entire decision.
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.