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Intracompany complaints about violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) can form the basis of retaliation lawsuit, according to a recent Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion.
Plaintiff Kathy Minor and several other members of her department met with Bostwick Laboratories' chief operating officer, Bill Miller, in 2008 to call to Miller's attention the fact that Minor believed her supervisor had willfully violated the FLSA. Minor claimed the supervisor routinely altered employees' time sheets to reflect that they had not worked overtime when they had. At the conclusion of the meeting, Miller told the group that he would look into the allegations.
Within a week, Minor was fired.
Miller and the human resources manager explained that Minor was fired because there was "too much conflict with [her] supervisors and the relationship just [was not] working." When pushed further, they said they had met with Minor's coworkers and "had determined that she was the problem." Minor claimed that she never had any conflict with her supervisors, that she had never been reprimanded or written up, and that the alleged conversation with her co-workers never took place.
Minor filed a retaliation lawsuit against Bostwick, alleging that she was illegally fired under the FLSA for reporting the alteration of the time sheets and the resulting lack of overtime pay. Bostwick filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss Minor's case, arguing that the plain language of the FLSA anti-retaliation provision indicates that a formal, official proceeding was required to invoke the clause's protection. Minor, by contrast, had lodged an informal, intracompany complaint.
The district court granted Bostwick's motion. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court, reinstating Minor's case.
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain that an employee's oral complaint can qualify for FLSA anti-retaliation protection if it is "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." Kasten did not address whether an internal complaint falls within the scope of the FLSA, but the Fourth Circuit joined the majority of federal appellate courts in deciding that intracompany complaints are subject to the anti-retaliation statute.
The lesson for employers: the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals interprets the FLSA anti-retaliation statute broadly. Think carefully before terminating employees who have made internal rumblings about matters that could form the basis of an FLSA complaint, or you could find yourself the defendant in a retaliation lawsuit.