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Internal Complaint Sufficient to Trigger FLSA’s Anti-Retaliation Measure

Section 215(a)(3) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) makes it unlawful for a covered employer to “discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this chapter, or has testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding.” In Minor v. Bostwick Laboratories, Inc., (4th Cir., No. 10-1258, 1/27/12), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit addressed whether an employee’s complaint to company management—as opposed to a complaint filed with a court or government agency— may trigger the protection of the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision.

Kathy Minor was employed Bostwick Laboratories, Inc. (“Bostwick”) as a medical technologist.  Minor and several other employees met with Bostwick’s chief operating officer to discuss timekeeping issues.  During the meeting Minor alleged that her supervisor had willfully violated the FLSA by altering timesheets to remove overtime hours that employees had actually worked and recorded.  Minor was told that her allegations would be investigated.  Four days later she was fired.

Minor sued, alleging that her discharge violated the FLSA.  The district court dismissed Minor’s claim, finding that her internal complaint did not trigger protection of the FLSA’s antiretaliation provision.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit focused on whether Minor had “filed any complaint” within the meaning of Section 215(a)(3).  In Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 131 S. Ct. 1325 (2011), the Supreme Court held that oral complaints could meet Section 215(a)(3)’s “filed any complaint” requirement, but it did not address whether intracompany complaints could be protected.

The Fourth Circuit found the phrase “filed any complaint” ambiguous.  The Court decided that, in light of the FLSA’s remedial purpose, intracompany complaints may constitute “fil[ing] any complaint” under Section 215(a)(3) of the FLSA.   The Court went on to say that not every instance of an employee letting off steam would be protected activity.  Some degree of formality is required.  The employer must have fair notice that a grievance has been lodged, and it should understand the matter is to be addressed as part of its business concerns.  According to the Fourth Circuit, Minor’s complaint met this standard, and her allegations were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

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