Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an employee’s Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) retaliation claim can be based on an oral complaint made by the employee to his employer regarding wages or other issues covered by the Act.

An employee of Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. complained orally to Company officials about the Company’s timeclocks, which he claimed were located in an area that prevented the employees from receiving credit for the time they spent donning and doffing work-related protective gear. After making the oral complaints, he was discharged.

The employee then sued the Company for terminating him in violation of the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision, which prohibits an employer from discharging "any employee because such employee has filed any complaint" alleging a violation of the Act. 29 U.S.C. 215(a)(3). The District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision did not cover oral complaints, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed that decision.

The Supreme Court, however, reversed the judgment, holding that the statutory phrase "filed any complaint" includes oral, as well as written, complaints. In reaching this conclusion, the Court relied, in part, on the FLSA’s "basic objective, which is to prohibit ‘labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.’" Limiting anti-retaliation claims to cases in which a written complaint was filed, the Court reasoned, would not support this broad objective.

This case is another in a line of cases expansively interpreting retaliation provisions in employment law. (See, for example, our previous posts on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Crawford and Thompson decisions regarding retaliation under Title VII.) The Court’s opinion in this case should also reinforce to employers the importance of thoroughly investigating discipline and discharge decisions when the employee involved has raised, whether orally or in writing, complaints or allegations of discrimination or other legal violations.