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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.
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.
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.
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.
8th Cir.: Recording Overtime Over Defendant-Employer’s Objections Not Protected Activity Under 29 U.S.C. § 215
Ritchie v. St. Louis Jewish Light
Plaintiff brought this case under 29 U.S.C. § 215. Holding that informal complaints are not protected activity under the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provisions, the lower court dismissed and Plaintiff appealed, arguing that such informal complaints are protected activity. The Eight Circuit did not reach that issue however, because it held that Plaintiff had not even made such informal complaints, because it held continuing to record overtime worked, despite Defendants’ instructions not to does not constitute a “complaint.” As such, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision.
Reasoning that Plaintiff had not engaged in activity that would be protected under § 215, even if § 215 protected informal complaints, the court explained:
“We need not decide today whether informal complaints are protected activity under the FLSA because there is nothing in Ritchie’s verified federal court complaint that alleged that Ritchie made any sort of complaint to either Levin or St. Louis Jewish Light. The verified complaint alleged that:
7. Starting on or about May or June 2009, Levin asked Ritchie to perform work (“Work”) [formerly] performed by two employees by herself which Ritchie commenced to do.
8. Levin asked Ritchie to perform the Work without recording overtime.
9. The Work required that Ritchie perform overtime hours (more than 40 hours in a week) (“Overtime”) which Ritchie recorded.
10. Levin complained to Ritchie about her recording the Overtime and again requested that she perform the Work without recording overtime.
11. When Ritchie continued to record the Overtime, she was terminated by Levin and [St. Louis Jewish Light].
(Appellant’s App. at 1-2.)
Even assuming that informal complaints are sufficient to trigger the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA, a legal conclusion we do not make, Ritchie failed to allege sufficient facts to indicate that she made even an informal complaint to either Levin or St. Louis Jewish Light. The only complaining asserted in her pleading goes the other way-Levin complaining to Ritchie. Ritchie asserts that she complained pursuant to the FLSA when she gave “Levin notice that she believed Levin’s instructions were a violation of the law because she, in fact, recorded the overtime hours in writing despite his orders not to record them.” (Appellant’s Reply Br. at 4.) In fact, rather than constituting an affirmative complaint that would trigger the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA, her recording of her overtime could be nothing more than mere insubordination, she having been instructed to the contrary. Insubordination is not protected under the FLSA, and insubordination is not sufficient to trigger the anti-retaliation provision in 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). As appellees’ counsel noted at oral argument, if merely recording one’s overtime is a “complaint” that triggers the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA, an employer would not be able to discipline an employee for working unauthorized overtime so long as the employee recorded the overtime.
As the Supreme Court has recently said, the plausibility standard, which requires a federal court complaint “to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, … asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (internal quotation marks omitted). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not ‘show[n]-‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.’ “ Id. at 1950 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).
To establish a prima facie case of retaliation under the FLSA, Ritchie would have to show that she participated in statutorily protected activity, that the appellees took an adverse employment action against her, and that there was a causal connection between Ritchie’s statutorily protected activity and the adverse employment action. See Grey v. City of Oak Grove, 396 F.3d 1031, 1034-35 (8th Cir.2005). The facts pleaded in Ritchie’s complaint do not permit us to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct. Thus, Ritchie’s complaint merely alleged, but did not show, that Ritchie is entitled to relief.
Thus, the district court did not err in granting the appellees’ motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). See Carton, 611 F.3d at 454.”
Click Ritchie v. St. Louis Jewish Light to read the entire decision.
E.D.Ark: Punitive Damage Awards Permissible For FLSA Retaliation Claims
Wolfe v. Clear Title, LLC
This case was before the Court on Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. In resolving the Motion in favor of the Plaintiff, the Court also held that punitive damages are permissible to a Plaintiff in an FLSA retaliation case brought pursuant to 29 U.S.C. 215(a), after acknowledging a split of authority on the issue between Circuit courts and trial level courts within the Eighth Circuit as well.
“The prohibition on retaliation is stated in 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3), which makes it unlawful to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because the employee has filed a complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted a proceeding under the FLSA. The majority of circuits have held that this provision protects an employee who makes an internal complaint to the employer. Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. ., 570 F.3d 834, 838 (7th Cir.2009). The Eighth Circuit has interpreted the statute to prohibit discrimination against an employee who asserts or threatens to assert FLSA rights. Brennan v. Maxey’s Yamaha, Inc., 513 F.2d 179, 183 (8th Cir.1975). That interpretation has been criticized as contrary to the plain language of subsection 215(a)(3). See Kasten, 570 F.3d at 840 (holding that the phrase “file any complaint” requires a plaintiff employee to submit some sort of writing). Needless to say, the holding of the Eighth Circuit in Brennan v. Maxey’s Yamaha, Inc., is binding on this Court. Here, the conduct of which Wolfe complains falls within the prohibition of subsection 215(a)(3) as broadly interpreted by the Eighth Circuit.
The courts are divided on the issue of whether the FLSA provides for punitive damages for employees who are subject to retaliation for claiming their rights under that statutory scheme. The Seventh Circuit has held that punitive damages are available in FLSA retaliation cases. Travis v. Gary Community Mental Health Ctr., 921 F.2d 108, 112 (7th Cir.1990). The only other circuit to address the issue thus far is the Eleventh Circuit, which held that punitive damages are not available in FLSA retaliation cases. Snapp v. Unlimited Concepts, Inc., 208 F.3d 928 (11th Cir.2000), cert. denied, 532 U.S. 975, 121 S.Ct. 1609, 149 L.Ed.2d 474 (2001).FN1 The only district courts in the Eighth Circuit to address the issue are the Eastern and Western Districts of Missouri, and they, too, have reached opposite conclusions. The Eastern District of Missouri has followed the Eleventh Circuit in two cases. Huang v. Gateway Hotel Holdings, 520 F.Supp.2d 1137, 1143 (E.D.Mo.2007); Tucker v. Monsanto Co., 2007 WL 1686957 (E.D.Mo. June 8, 2007). Even before the Eleventh Circuit decided Snapp, the Eastern District of Missouri had held, without discussion, that the FLSA does not provide for punitive damages in retaliation cases. Waldermeyer v. ITT Consumer Fin. Corp., 782 F.Supp. 86, 88 (E.D.Mo.1991). On the other hand, the Western District of Missouri followed the Seventh Circuit in one case decided before Snapp, O’Brien v. Dekalb-Clinton Counties Ambulance Dist., 1996 WL 565817, at *6 (W.D.Mo. June 24, 1996) (“In the absence of conflicting interpretation of the amended section 16(b) by another circuit, the court is persuaded to follow the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning and hold that compensatory and punitive damages are available for violation of the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision.”). See also Johnston v. Davis Security, Inc., 217 F.Supp.2d 1224, 1230-31 (D.Utah 2002) (holding that punitive damages are not recoverable under subsection 216(b)); Lanza v. Sugarland Run Homeowners Ass’n, Inc., 97 F.Supp.2d 737, 739-42 (E.D.Va.2000) (same). But see Marrow v. Allstate Sec. & Investigative Services, 167 F.Supp.2d 838, 842-46 (E.D.Pa.2001) (holding that punitive damages are recoverable in a claim for retaliation under the FLSA).
The remedies for violating the FLSA are set out in 29 U.S.C. § 216. Subsection 216(a) provides:
Any person who willfully violates any of the provisions of section 215 of this title shall upon conviction thereof be subject to a fine of not more than $10,000, or to imprisonment for not more than six months, or both. No person shall be imprisoned under this subsection except for an offense committed after the conviction of such person for a prior offense under this subsection.
Subsection 216(b) provides, in pertinent part:
Any employer who violates the provisions of section 215(a)(3) of this title shall be liable for such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of section 215(a)(3) of this title, including without limitation employment, reinstatement, promotion, and the payment of wages lost and an additional equal amount as liquidated damages.
In Travis, the Seventh Circuit held that this provision authorizes legal relief, “a term commonly understood to include compensatory and punitive damages.” Travis, 921 F.2d at 111. Otherwise, the analysis in Travis was fairly cursory.
In Snapp, the Eleventh Circuit engaged in a lengthy, detailed analysis of the statutory scheme and arrived at a conclusion opposite from that reached in Travis. The court held in Snapp that the term “legal relief” ordinarily would include punitive damages, but interpreting the statute in the light of the principle of ejusdem generis, the court said that the term “legal relief” in subsection 216(b) should be construed to include only compensatory relief, not punitive damages, because the specific items listed in that subsection as “legal or equitable relief” were all designed to make plaintiffs whole. Snapp, 208 F.3d at 934. The court also said that the statute was structured so that punitive sanctions were covered in subsection 216(a), while subsection 216(b) provided remedies for making aggrieved employees whole. Id. at 935.
The most thorough critique of the Eleventh Circuit’s reasoning in Snapp appears to be the critique of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Marrow. There, the court said that application of the maxim of ejusdem generis to subsection 216(b) was inappropriate because the subsection prefaces its list of various forms of relief with the phrase “including without limitation.” Marrow, 167 F.Supp.2d at 844 (emphasis by the Marrow court). “The most sensible reading of that phrase leads to the conclusion that by listing several potential forms of relief, Congress did not mean to exclude others.” Id. Moreover, Marrow reasoned, the purpose of subsection 215(a)(3) is not purely compensatory but is intended to deter employers from engaging in retaliation, so that limiting subsection 216(b) to remedies designed to make the plaintiff whole would not fully implement the intent of Congress. Id. The court in Marrow also found unpersuasive the argument that because Congress provided criminal sanctions in subsection 216(a) it could not have meant to include punitive damages in subsection 216(b). Id.
Although the issue is obviously not free from doubt, the undersigned is persuaded by the reasoning Marrow. Subsection 216(b) was drafted broadly to authorize “such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of section 215(a)(3) of this title, including without limitation….” As Snapp noted:
“Legal relief” is certainly a broad formulation. It would have almost no boundary were it not for the commonly understood decision between the “legal” and “equitable” powers of a court. Where such an expansive term is used, we look for clues within the statute to help us understand the exact nature of the “legal relief” that Congress intended; and we are not disappointed when we look to section 216(b).Snapp, 208 F.3d at 934. The only limitation on the term “legal relief” stated in subsection 216(b) is that it be “appropriate to effectuate the purposes of section 215(a)(3)….” The ordinary meaning of “legal relief” as including punitive damages is consistent with that limitation because punitive damages may be appropriate in some cases to effectuate the purposes of subsection 215(a)(3). It is contrary to the legislative intent, as expressed in this broadly worded provision, to exclude punitive damages from the relief authorized by subsection 216(b). The maxim of ejusdem generis is an aid to ascertaining legislative intent and should not be employed to defeat legislative intent, to make general words meaningless, or to reach a conclusion inconsistent with other rules of construction. Donovan v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc., 666 F.2d 315, 326 (8th Cir.1981); United States v. Clark, 646 F.2d 1259, 1265 (8th Cir.1981).
Nor is the undersigned persuaded by the argument in Snapp that punitive sanctions are covered in subsection 216(a), while subsection 216(b) is designed to make plaintiffs whole. In Snapp, the court said, “Congress has already covered punitive damages in section 216(a); and there is simply no reason to carry the punitive element over from section 216(a) to section 216(b), a provision intended to compensate not punish.” Snapp, 208 F.3d at 935. Section 216 has five subsections: subsection 216(a) provides for criminal sanctions; subsection 216(b) provides for civil actions by aggrieved employees; subsection 216(c) provides for civil actions by the Secretary of Labor to recover unpaid minimum wages or overtime compensation on behalf of employees to which those wages are owed; subsection 216(d) states certain narrow exceptions to “liability or punishment” under the FLSA; and subsection 216(e) authorizes civil penalties for child labor violations. Section 216 is not structured so as to have a punishment section and a compensation section; instead, the structure includes a section providing for criminal prosecution by the government prosecuting attorneys, a section providing for civil actions by aggrieved employees, a section providing for civil actions by the Secretary of Labor to recover minimum wages and overtime on behalf of employees, and a section providing for civil penalties for child labor violations. The fact that in subsection 216(a) Congress provided criminal sanctions for willful violations of section 215 supports rather than undercuts the notion that the remedies available under subsection 216(b) include punitive damages, for it shows that Congress regarded willful violations as serious enough to warrant punishment and as a form of misconduct that stands in need of deterrence-which is to say that Congress determined that in some cases punishment would be “appropriate to effectuate the purposes of section 215(a)(3).” Moreover, that subsection 216(e) provides for penalties shows that subsection 216(a) was not intended as an exhaustive statement of the punishment available for violations of the FLSA.
In summary, subsection 216(b) was intended to authorize civil actions by aggrieved employees in which the employees could recover any form of legal or equitable relief that might be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of subsection 215(a)(3). In some cases, punitive damages might be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of that subsection. Therefore, punitive damages may in the proper case be recoverable under subsection 216(b).”
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.
D.Me.: Oral Complaint To Employer Is “Protected Activity” Sufficient To Trigger The Anti-Retaliation Provisions of 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)
Gosselin v. Boralex Livermore Falls, LP
This case was before the Court on Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment with respect to Plaintiff’s 2 count complaint. The second count of Plaintiff’s complaint sought damages as a result of Defendants’ alleged violation of the anti-retaliation provisions of the FLSA, commonly referred to as Section 215. Following 1st Circuit law, the Court held that Plaintiff’s informal oral complaints to a supervisor constituted sufficient “statutorily protected activity” to withstand Defendants’ Motion.
The Court addressed each element of a retaliation claim, stating, “[i]n order to establish a retaliation claim under the FLSA, the plaintiff must show that (1) he engaged in statutorily protected activity and (2) his employer thereafter subjected him to an adverse employment action, (3) as a reprisal for having engaged in the protected activity. Blackie v. State of Maine, 75 F.3d 716, 722 (1st Cir.1996). Here, the defendants contend that the plaintiff did not ‘file[ ] any complaint.’
The evidence in the summary judgment record about the plaintiff’s statement to Ettinger on July 31, 2006, is as follows: On July 31, 2006, the plaintiff left the control room to look for Wranosky to complain about what Morrell had told the plaintiff that Wranosky had said about how employees should record their working time. When the plaintiff instead saw Ettinger, he told Ettinger that he had heard that Wranosky had decided to restrict the amount of time that employees could put on their timesheets for shift turnover. He told Ettinger that he thought that the Department of Labor had previously found that Boralex had “violated employees’ rights when it prevented them from reporting all of the time they worked during shift turnover on their timesheets,” and that he planned to call the Department of Labor if this practice continued.
The defendants focus on the facts that the plaintiff was complaining about ‘a hearsay statement made by another person for which he had no first-hand knowledge and that he [had] never attempted to confirm,’ that the plaintiff “has admitted that Mr. Wranosky has never told [the plaintiff] that he was not to record all time worked, that the plaintiff ‘admitted that Mr. Wranosky has never instructed him to underreport his time,’ and that the plaintiff never pursued this issue between July 31, 2006, and his promotion to shift supervisor in 2007.
But, none of these facts negates the possibility that the plaintiff filed a complaint within the terms of the FLSA when he spoke to Ettinger on July 31, 2006. The First Circuit has held that an internal complaint, made only to the employer, is sufficient to constitute the filing of a complaint under the FLSA. Valerio v. Putnam Assoc., Inc., 173 F.3d 35, 41 (1st Cir.1999). In that case, the First Circuit expressly reserved ruling on the question whether a “wholly oral” complaint would qualify, id. at 42 n. 4, but I find persuasive the reasoning of the court in Skelton v. American Intercontinental University Online, 382 F.Supp.2d 1068, 1076 (N.D.Ill.2005), and cases cited therein, that conclude that an oral complaint is sufficient based upon the broad, remedial purposes of the FLSA.
Therefore, the Court concluded that “[t]he plaintiff has offered evidence that he told a supervisor that his employer was violating the FLSA and that, if the violation continued, he would report it to the Department of Labor. This is sufficient to demonstrate that he engaged in protected activity under the FLSA.”