Justices protect workers who file verbal complaints

WASHINGTON – A complaint is a complaint, and it’s valid – and protected – whether it’s verbal or in writing, at least under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.

That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 6-2, on March 22 in Kevin Kasten’s retaliation case against St. Gobain Plastics Corp.

And its ruling could help low-income, often-abused workers everywhere.

Kasten complained verbally and repeatedly to his supervisors several years ago about misplaced time clocks at the plant.  The clocks were placed in such a way that the workers could not get time credit – or get paid – for the time they spent putting on or taking off protective gear.  He even warned the misplaced time clocks could lead to a lawsuit. Federal law says firms must pay workers for that gear time.

Not only did St. Gobain brush Kasten aside, they fired him in Dec. 2006, and he sued.  St. Gobain tried to get his case tossed out by saying he was basing his complaint about being illegally fired on his time clock complaints – and those had to be in writing.

That’s not the way the law reads, Justice Stephen Breyer replied for the majority.  Though lower courts said only written complaints are covered, the high court said “no,” that both oral and written complaints are legit. Thus, St. Gobain illegally retaliated against Kasten.

“The act protects employees who have ‘filed any complaint,’ Breyer wrote. “The language of the provision, considered in isolation, may be open to competing interpretations. But considering the provision in conjunction with the purpose and context leads us to conclude that only one interpretation is permissible,” namely that a complaint is a complaint, orally or in writing.”

To buttress his point, Breyer cited state laws, federal rules and court decisions as far back as 1925, all allowing oral complaints and claims.  Breyer also pointed out that when FDR proposed the law in 1937, he advocated allowing oral complaints. 

“Why would Congress want to limit the enforcement scheme’s effectiveness by inhibiting use of the act’s complaint procedure by those who would find it difficult to reduce their complaints to writing, particularly illiterate, less educated, or overworked workers?” Breyer asked.  “President Franklin Roosevelt pointed out at the time that these were the workers most in need of the act’s help.”

“In many plants where there is a high degree of illiteracy, the writing of grievances by employees works a substantial hardship,” he continued. “In other plants where there is considerable dirt and special clothes must be worn, it is often not practicable to write up grievances during work hours.”

Conditions may have changed, but the law has not – and verbal complaints are legal and company retaliation against complainers is illegal, Breyer said.

Image: S.E.B. // CC BY-NC 2.0


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.