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4th Cir.: Intracompany Complaints Regarding FLSA Violations Are Protected Activity Within the Meaning of Anti-Retaliation Provision of 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3)
Minor v. Bostwick Laboratories, Inc.
Jafari v. Old Dominion Transit Management Co.
In two new opinions, one published (Minor) and one unpublished (Jafari) the Fourth Circuit confirmed that post-Kasten, intracompany complaints of FLSA violations are sufficient to trigger the protections of the anti-retaliation provision of 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3).
In Minor, the lower court had dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint premised on a violation of 215, holding that internal complaints, as opposed to those to a government agency, do not constitute protected activity. Reversing the lower court, the Fourth Circuit held that such intracompany complaints are indeed protected activity and thus, trigger the protections of 215.
Framing the issue the Fourth Circuit explained:
“The sole question presented by this appeal is whether an employee’s complaint lodged within her company—as opposed to a complaint filed with a court or government agency—may trigger the protection of the FLSA’s antiretaliation provision. This is an issue of first impression in this circuit.”
Initially the court noted that neither Kasten, nor any Fourth Circuit case law was directly on point. However, following the majority of circuits to have addresssed the issue, the court concluded that the statute was ambiguous as to this point and given the remedial nature of the FLSA such informal complaints should be protected.
After discussing the ambiguity in 215’s language regarding “filing” a complaint, the court reasoned:
“The Supreme Court in Kasten determined that oral complaints could constitute protected activity within the meaning of § 215(a)(3) based upon “functional considerations.” 131 S.Ct. at 1333. In light of the ambiguous nature of § 215(a)(3)‘s “filed any complaint” language, we find that these same functional considerations dictate that intracompany complaints qualify as protected activity within the meaning of the FLSA’s antiretaliation provision.
We first consider the basic goals of the FLSA. Consistent with other authority, we conclude that, because of the statute’s remedial purpose, § 215(a)(3) must be interpreted to include intracompany complaints.
The FLSA was enacted to combat “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.” 29 U.S.C. § 202(a). “The central aim of the Act was to achieve … certain minimum labor standards.” Mitchell v. Robert DeMario Jewelry, Inc., 361 U.S. 288, 292, 80 S.Ct. 332, 4 L.Ed.2d 323 (1960). To ensure compliance with the provisions enacted to serve this purpose, Congress “chose to rely on information and complaints from employees seeking to vindicate rights claimed to have been denied.” Id. It included the antiretaliation provision in recognition of the fact that “fear of economic retaliation might often operate to induce aggrieved employees quietly to accept substandard conditions.” Id. In light of these objectives, the Supreme Court has consistently held that the FLSA “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, 64 S.Ct. 698, 88 L.Ed. 949 (1944). We likewise recognized in Ball that where the statutory language permits, “we are instructed to read the FLSA to effect its remedial purposes.” 228 F.3d at 363–64.
With the statute’s purpose in mind, Kasten stated that “an interpretation [of § 215(a)(3) ] that limited the provision’s coverage to written complaints would undermine the [FLSA’s] basic objectives.” 131 S.Ct. at 1333. The Supreme Court further observed that such a limitation on the scope of the anti-retaliation provision would circumscribe flexibility in enforcing the FLSA. Id . at 1334. As a supporting point, the Supreme Court stated that “insofar as the antiretaliation provision covers complaints made to employers …, [limiting the scope of § 215(a)(3) ] would discourage the use of desirable informal workplace grievance procedures to secure compliance with the Act.” Id. Following this reasoning, we conclude that an interpretation that limits § 215(a)(3)‘s coverage to complaints made before an administrative or judicial body would overly circumscribe the reach of the antiretaliation provision in contravention of the FLSA’s remedial purpose. Allowing intracompany complaints to constitute protected activity within the meaning of § 215(a)(3), on the other hand, comports with the statute’s objectives as described by Congress’s findings and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of those findings.
Amici offer several persuasive policy arguments in support of this conclusion. They point out that protection of internal complaints encourages resolution of FLSA violations without resort to drawn-out litigation—and that failure to protect internal complaints may have the perverse result of encouraging employers to fire employees who believe they have been treated illegally before they file a formal complaint. Our sister circuits have voiced the same concerns in concluding that § 215(a)(3) protects intracompany complaints. See Valerio v. Putnam Assocs., Inc., 173 F.3d 35, 43 (1st Cir.1999) (“By protecting only those employees who kept secret their belief that they were being illegally treated until they filed a legal proceeding, the Act would discourage prior discussion of the matter between employee and employer, and would have the bizarre effect both of discouraging early settlement and creating an incentive for the employer to fire an employee as soon as possible after learning the employee believed he was being treated illegally.”).
Indeed, the majority of circuits to consider the question of whether intracompany complaints are protected activity within the meaning of “filed any complaint” have answered in the affirmative, basing their decisions on the FLSA’s remedial purpose.FN8 See, e.g., Hagan v. Echostar Satellite, LLC, 529 F.3d 617, 626 (5th Cir .2008) (“We adopt the majority rule, which allows an informal, internal complaint to constitute protected activity under Section 215(a)(3), because it better captures the anti-retaliation goals of that section.”); Lambert v. Ackerley, 180 F.3d 997, 1004 (9th Cir.1999) (en banc) (finding that § 215(a)(3) covered internal complaints based on its remedial purpose); Valerio, 173 at 42 (same); EEOC v. White & Son Enters., 881 F.2d 1006, 1011 (11th Cir.1989) (same); Love v. RE/MAX of Am., Inc., 738 F.2d 383, 387 (10th Cir.1984) (same); Brennan v. Maxey’s Yamaha, Inc., 513 F.2d 179, 181 (8th Cir.1975) (same); see also EEOC v. Romeo Cmty. Sch., 976 F.2d 985, 989 (6th Cir.1992) (holding that an employee’s complaints to her employer were sufficient to trigger protection of the FLSA’s antiretaliation provision without explaining its rationale). Cf. Brock v. Richardson, 812 F.2d 121, 124–25 (3d Cir.1987) (holding that, because of the FLSA’s remedial purpose, a retaliatory firing based on an employer’s belief that an employee had filed a complaint—even when he had not—was prohibited by § 215(a)(3)). Thus, we adopt the majority view by holding that the remedial purpose of the FLSA requires intracompany complaints to be considered protected activity within the meaning of its antiretaliation provision.
Supporting our conclusion is the Secretary of Labor and the EEOC’s consistent position that intracompany complaints are included within the meaning of “filed any complaint.” We afford agency interpretations that do not have the force of law, like agency manuals and litigation documents, respect to the extent that they possess the “power to persuade.” Christensen v. Harris Cnty., 529 U.S. 576, 587, 120 S.Ct. 1655, 146 L.Ed.2d 621 (2000) (quoting Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134, 140, 65 S.Ct. 161, 89 L.Ed. 124 (1944)). Factors we consider when determining whether an agency interpretation has the power to persuade include “the thoroughness evident in its consideration, the validity of its reasoning, [and] its consistency with earlier and later pronouncements.” Skidmore, 323 U.S. at 140; see also Cunningham v. Scibana, 259 F.3d 303, 306–07 (4th Cir.2001).
Here, the EEOC has set forth the position that intracompany complaints constitute “fil[ing] any complaint” within the meaning of § 215(a)(3) in the compliance manual it issues to field offices. 2 EEOC Compliance Manual § 8–II(B) & 8–II(B) n. 12 (2006). In addition, both the Secretary and the EEOC have argued in litigation that intracompany complaints are covered by the FLSA’s antiretaliation provision. See, e.g., Br. for the Sec. of Labor and the EEOC as Amici Curiae at 26–30; Br. for the Sec. of Labor as Amicus Curiae, Kasten v. Saint–Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 570 F.3d 834 (7th Cir.2009) (No. 08–2820). Thus, although it is not determinative, because the Secretary and the EEOC have consistently advanced this reasonable and thoroughly considered position, it “add[s] force to our conclusion.” Kasten, 131 S.Ct. at 1335.
We conclude by emphasizing that our holding that intracompany complaints may constitute “fil[ing] any complaint” under § 215(a)(3) does not mean that every instance of an employee “letting off steam” to his employer constitutes protected activity. Kasten, 131 S.Ct. at 1334. To the contrary, “the statute requires fair notice” to employers. Id. To protect employers from unnecessary uncertainty, “some degree of formality” is required for an employee complaint to constitute protected activity, “certainly to the point where the recipient has been given fair notice that a grievance has been lodged and does, or should, reasonably understand that matter as part of its business concerns.” Id. Therefore, the proper standard for the district court to apply is the aforementioned test articulated in Kasten: whether Minor’s complaint to her employer was “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 and a call for their protection.” Id. at 1335.
Minor’s allegations here meet the standard we have articulated to the extent required to survive a motion to dismiss. The facts as alleged in her complaint indicate that Minor expressed her concerns regarding FLSA violations to the chief operating officer of her company in a meeting specifically called for that purpose. Minor also alleges that this executive-level employee agreed to investigate her claims. At this stage, these allegations are sufficient. We note again that we express no view as to whether Minor should ultimately prevail under the standard we have articulated. We simply hold that, on the facts alleged, her complaint survives a motion to dismiss.”
Click Minor v. Bostwick Laboratories, Inc. to read the entire published Opinion. Click Jafari v. Old Dominion Transit Management Co. to read the companion unpublished Opinion. Also of interest is the DOL/EEOC Amici Brief filed in Jafari.