BEWARE THE CASUAL EMPLOYEE COMPLAINT!

The United States Supreme Court has just overturned long-standing law in the Federal Districts of Connecticut and New York with respect to employee claims of retaliation for registering a complaint with an employer under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“Act”). In this case note, we will tell you how the law has changed, and how employers should adopt changes in policy and procedure to protect themselves from a new and difficult-to-defend source of employment-related liability.

 The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938 and subsequently amended by the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The Act sets forth employment rules concerning minimum wages, maximum hours, and overtime pay. The Act contains an anti-retaliation provision prohibiting the discharge of or discrimination against any employee who has “filed any complaint” related to the Act. In 1993, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (whose jurisdiction includes Connecticut and New York) decided
Lambert v. Genesee Hospital, 10 F.3d 46 (2d Cir. 1993). There the Court held that “[t]he plain language of this [anti-retaliation] provision [of the Act] limits the cause of action to retaliation for filing formal complaints, instituting a proceeding, or testifying, but does not encompass complaints made to a supervisor.” Id. at 55. Such was the settled law within this Circuit until March 22, 2011, when the Supreme Court issued its decision in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 2011 U.S. LEXIS 2417 (2011).

In 
Kasten, the Supreme Court conducted a thorough exegesis of the phrase “filed any complaint” in the context of whether the statutory language included oral, as well as written complaints, and whether oral complaints thereby constituted protected conduct under the Act’s anti-retaliation provision. The case involved an employee who complained orally to his supervisor about the physical placement of time clocks so as to deprive workers of compensable time. The employee was fired soon after his complaint. The Supreme Court found the text of the statute to be inconclusive as to its meaning and harkened back to the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt and pre-World War II census data to further divine the Act’s legislative intent. The Supreme Court ultimately concluded: “[t]o fall within the scope of the antiretaliation provision, a complaint must be 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. This standard can be met, however, by oral complaints, as well as by written ones.” Kasten at * 23. Left unanswered by the Court, however, is the actual level of clarity and detail required to elevate some employee “letting off steam” (e.g., to a supervisor at a Friday night, after-work happy hour) to the protected activity of “filing of a complaint.” Turning the already murky waters opaque, the Court offered this guidance: “[t]he phrase ‘filed any complaint’ contemplates some degree of formality, certainly to the point where the recipient has been given fair notice that a grievance has been lodged and does, or should, reasonably understand the matter as part of its business concerns.”
Lurking behind the Court’s holding is the spectre of an employee dismissed for cause suddenly recalling his prior oral complaint to his supervisor about violations of the Act, thus playing his anti-retaliation “get out of jail free” card. While the Supreme Court paid lip service to the requirement that an employer be given “fair notice” (albeit orally) of a claimed violation of the Act, it “[left] it to the lower courts to decide whether Kasten [the plaintiff-employee] will be able to satisfy the Act’s notice requirement.”
Id. at * 27. As of this point, there is no such lower court advice to depend upon, but there are steps an employer can now take to reduce its exposure to a fabricated, after-the-fact claim of employer retaliation.
Employee Handbooks or Company Policies and Procedures Manuals should be amended to require that all employee complaints to supervisors or management be written (even if anonymous) on a form prescribed by the employer and delivered to a specific location (e.g., suggestion box) or a designated member of management. A sample form should be appended to the Handbook or Manual as an Exhibit, and a supply of forms should be made readily (but discretely) available to employees. The Company needs to establish a usual, customary, and accepted practice of addressing only written employee complaints, irrespective of their subject, seriousness, or source. The complaint forms should be numerically serialized upon receipt and logged in so that there is no question as to whether or when it was received. In this way, the company can argue that the absence of such a written complaint form raises a rebuttable presumption that no such complaint was ever made. It will thus deprive a discharged employee of the opportunity after he is fired to conjure up a “stealth” retaliation claim based upon a “phantom” oral complaint.
In the meantime, supervisors and management should be made aware that seemingly innocuous oral complaints from employees about wages and hours are sufficient to trigger the anti-retaliation provision of the Act and should be investigated and acted upon.
The Attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C. regularly draft or review Employee Handbooks and advise employers on the full spectrum of employment law and employer-employee relations. For additional information, call at (203) 221-3100 or contact JMaya@mayalaw.com.
 

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