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Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.

March 22, 2011





Argued October 13, 2010

Petitioner Kasten brought an antiretaliation suit against his former employer, respondent (Saint-Gobain), under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (Act), which provides minimum wage, maximum hour, and overtime pay rules; and which forbids employers "to discharge . . . any employee because such employee has filed any complaint" alleging a violation of the Act, 29 U. S. C. §215(a)(3). In a related suit, the District Court found that Saint-Gobain violated the Act by placing timeclocks in a location that prevented workers from receiving credit for the time they spent donning and doffing work-related protective gear. In this suit Kasten claims that he was dis-charged because he orally complained to company officials about the timeclocks. The District Court granted Saint-Gobain summary judgment, concluding that the Act's antiretaliation provision did not cover oral complaints. The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

Held: The scope of statutory term "filed any complaint" includes oral, as well as written, complaints. Pp. 4--15.

(a) The interpretation of the statutory phrase "depends upon reading the whole statutory text, considering the [statute's] purpose and context . . . , and consulting any precedents or authorities that inform the analysis." Dolan v. Postal Service, 546 U. S. 481, 486. The text, taken alone, cannot provide a conclusive answer here. Some dictionary definitions of "filed" contemplate a writing while others permit using "file" in conjunction with oral material. In addition to dictionary definitions, state statutes and federal regulations sometimes contemplate oral filings, and contemporaneous judicial usage shows that oral filings were a known phenomenon at the time of the Act's passage. Even if "filed," considered alone, might suggest a narrow interpretation limited to writings, "any complaint" suggests a broad interpretation that would include an oral complaint. Thus, the three-word phrase, taken by itself, cannot answer the interpretive question. The Act's other references to "filed" also do not resolve the linguistic question. Some of those provisions involve filed material that is virtually always in writing; others specifically require a writing, and the remainder, like the provision here, leave the oral/written question unresolved. Since "filed any complaint" lends itself linguistically to the broader, "oral" interpretation, the use of broader language in other statutes' antiretaliation provisions does not indicate whether Congress did or did not intend to leave oral grievances unprotected here. Because the text, taken alone, might, or might not, encompass oral complaints, the Court must look further. Pp. 4--8.

(b) Several functional considerations indicate that Congress intended the antiretaliation provision to cover oral, as well as written, complaints. Pp. 8--14.

(1) A narrow interpretation would undermine the Act'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," 29 U. S. C. §202(a). The Act relies for enforcement of its substantive standards on "information and complaints received from employees," Mitchell v. Robert DeMario Jewelry, Inc., 361 U. S. 288, 292, and its antiretaliation pro-vision makes the enforcement scheme effective by preventing "fear of economic retaliation" from inducing workers "quietly to accept sub-standard conditions," ibid. 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 the illiterate, less educated, or overworked workers who were most in need of the Act's help at the time of passage? Limiting the provision's scope to written complaints could prevent Government agencies from using hotlines, interviews, and other oral methods to receive complaints. And insofar as the provision covers complaints made to employers, a limiting reading would discourage using informal workplace grievance procedures to secure compliance with the Act. The National Labor Relations Act's antiretaliation provision has been broadly interpreted as protecting workers who simply "participate[d] in a [National Labor Relations] Board investigation." NLRB v. Scrivener, 405 U. S. 117, 123. The similar enforcement needs of this related statute argue for a broad interpretation of "complaint." The Act's requirement that an employer receive fair notice of an employee's complaint can be met by oral, as well as written, complaints. Pp. 8--12.

(2) Given the delegation of enforcement powers to federal administrative agencies, their views about the meaning of the phrase should be given a degree of weight. The Secretary of Labor has consistently held the view that "filed any complaint" covers both oral and written complaints. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has set out a similar view in its Compliance Manual and in multiple briefs. These views are reasonable and consistent with the Act. And the length of time they have been held suggests that they reflect careful consideration, not "post hoc rationalizatio[n]." Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Assn. of United States, Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co., 463 U. S. 29, 50. Pp. 12--13.

(3) After engaging in traditional statutory interpretation methods, the statute does not remain sufficiently ambiguous to warrant application of the rule of lenity. Pp. 13--14.

(c) This Court will not consider Saint-Gobain's alternative claim that the antiretaliation provision applies only to complaints filed with the Government, since that claim was not raised in the certiorari briefs and since its resolution is not a " 'predicate to an intelligent resolution' " of the oral/written question at issue, Caterpillar Inc. v. Lewis, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Breyer

563 U. S. ____ (2011)

Opinion of the Court

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (Act) sets forth employment rules concerning minimum wages, maximum hours, and overtime pay. 52 Stat. 1060, 29 U. S. C. §201 et seq. The Act contains an antiretaliation provision that forbids employers "to discharge or in any other 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 [the Act], or has testified or is about to testify in such proceeding, or has served or is about to serve on an industry committee." §215(a)(3) (emphasis added).

We must decide whether the statutory term "filed any complaint" includes oral as well as written complaints within its scope. We conclude that it does.


The petitioner, Kevin Kasten, brought this antiretaliation lawsuit against his former employer, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation. Kasten says that Saint-Gobain located its timeclocks between the area where Kasten and other workers put on (and take off) their work-related protective gear and the area where they carry out their assigned tasks. That location prevented workers from receiving credit for the time they spent putting on and taking off their work clothes-contrary to the Act's requirements. In a related suit the District Court agreed with Kasten, finding that Saint-Gobain's "practice of not compensating . . . for time spent donning and doffing certain required protective gear and walking to work areas" violated the Act. Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 556 F. Supp. 2d 941, 954 (WD Wis. 2008). In this suit Kasten claims unlawful retaliation. He says that Saint-Gobain discharged him because he orally complained to Saint-Gobain officials about the timeclocks.

In particular, Kasten says that he repeatedly called the unlawful timeclock location to Saint-Gobain's attention- in accordance with Saint-Gobain's internal grievanceresolution procedure. See Brief for Petitioner 4 (quoting Saint-Gobain's Code of Ethics and Business Conduct as imposing upon every employee "the responsibility to report . . . suspected violations of . . . any applicable law of which he or she becomes aware"); id., at 4--5 (quoting Saint-Gobain's Employee Policy Handbook as instructing employees with "questions, complaints, and problems" to "[c]ontact" their "supervisor[s] immediately" and if necessary "take the issue to the next level of management," then to the "local Human Resources Manager," then to "Human Resources" personnel at the "Regional" or "Headquarters" level).

Kasten adds that he "raised a concern" with his shift supervisor that "it was illegal for the time clocks to be where they were" because of Saint-Gobain's exclusion of "the time you come in and start doing stuff"; he told a human resources employee that "if they were to get chal­ lenged on" the location in court, "they would lose"; he told his lead operator that the location was illegal and that he "was thinking about starting a lawsuit about the placement of the time clocks"; and he told the human resources manager and the operations manager that he thought the location was illegal and that the company would "lose" in court. Record in No. 3:07--cv--00686--bbc (WD Wis.), Doc. 87--3, pp. 31--34 (deposition of Kevin Kasten). This activity, Kasten concludes, led the company to discipline him and, in December 2006, to dismiss him.

Saint-Gobain presents a different version of events. It denies that Kasten made any significant complaint about the timeclock location. And it says that it dismissed Kasten simply because Kasten, after being repeatedly warned, failed to record his comings and goings on the timeclock.

For present purposes we accept Kasten's version of these contested events as valid. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U. S. 372, 380 (2007). That is because the District Court entered summary judgment in Saint-Gobain's favor. 619 F. Supp. 2d 608, 610 (WD Wis. 2008). And it did so, not because it doubted Kasten's ability to prove the facts he alleged, but because it thought the Act did not protect oral complaints. Id., at 611--613. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the District Court that the Act's antiretaliation provision does not cover oral complaints. 570 F. 3d 834, 838--840 (2009).

Kasten sought certiorari. And in light of conflict among the Circuits as to whether an oral complaint is protected, we granted Kasten's petition. Compare Hagan v. Echostar Satellite, L. L. C., 529 F. 3d 617, 625--626 (CA5 2008) (antiretaliation provision covers oral complaints); Lambert v. Ackerley, 180 F. 3d 997, 1007 (CA9 1999) (en banc) (same); with Lambert v. Genesee Hospital, 10 F. 3d 46, 55-- 56 (CA2 1993) (antiretaliation provision does not cover informal complaints to supervisors). See also Pacheco v. Whiting Farms, Inc., 365 F. 3d 1199, 1206 (CA10 2004) (antiretaliation provision covers unofficial assertion of rights); EEOC v. White & Son Enterprises, 881 F. 2d 1006, 1011--1012 (CA11 1989) (same); Moore v. Freeman, 355 F. 3d 558, 562--563 (CA6 2004) (assuming without discussion that oral complaints are covered); Brennan v. Maxey's Yamaha, Inc., 513 F. 2d 179, 181 (CA8 1975) (same).


The sole question presented is whether "an oral complaint of a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act" is "protected conduct under the [Act's] anti-retaliation provision." Pet. for Cert. i. The Act protects employees who have "filed any complaint," 29 U. S. C. §215(a)(3), and interpretation of this phrase "depends upon reading the whole statutory text, considering the purpose and context of the statute, and consulting any precedents or authorities that inform the analysis," Dolan v. Postal Service, 546 U. S. 481, 486 (2006). This analysis leads us to conclude that 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.


We begin with the text of the statute. The word "filed" has different relevant meanings in different contexts. Some dictionary definitions of the word contemplate a writing. See, e.g., Webster's New International Dictionary 945 (2d ed. 1934) (def. 4(a)) (to file is to "deliver (a paper or instrument) to the proper officer so that it is received by him to be kept on file, or among the records of his office" (emphasis added)); Webster's Ninth New Collegiate ...

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