The Supreme Court issued a rare pro-employee decision today, resolving a split amongst federal circuit courts in deciding that the anti-retaliation protections for employees found in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) protect even verbal complaints by employees to their employers.

The FLSA contains an anti-retaliation provision at 29 U.S.C. Sec. 215(a)(3) – usually referred in shorthad as section 15(a)(3) – which prohibits an employer from discharging or discriminating against any employee if he or she has “filed any complaint.”  Many courts concluded that the term “filed any complaint” meant a formal filing of a valid FLSA complaint or charge; others extended the anti-retaliation protection to less formal complaints.

The Court noted that the vagueness of the term, since some dictionary definitions of the word “filed” contemplate a  writing, while  others permit use of the word “file” in conjunction with only oral material.  Meanwhile, the term “any complaint” lends itself to the broader interpretation.

Looking at the legislative history, the Court concluded that the broader interpretation was more consistent with Congress’ intent in passing the FLSA in 1938, including the desire to prevent “fear of economic retaliation” and to prevent the inducement of workers “quietly to accept substandard conditions.”
Citing Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s message to Congress urging passage of the FLSA, the Court declined “to limit the [statute’s] effectiveness” for “those who  would find it difficult to reduce their complaints to writing, particularly illiterate, less educated, or overworked workers.”

Although the decision may leave the door open on the question of who must receive the “filing” (i.e., an employer or a government agency) for the protections to extend to even oral complaints, the decision represents a breath of fresh air for employee rights.

The decision can be found here.