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Supreme Court Becoming Employee Friendly?

In many ways, the current US Supreme Court is one of the most conservative high courts since the Great Depression, when that era’s high Court struck down as unconstitutional many of the progressive bills passed under FDR’s leadership. Generally, the current US Supreme Court can be counted on to reach decisions which are business-friendly, which often strictly construe statutes against individual or small -group claimants, and otherwise which are not particularly consumer friendly or employee friendly.

However, periodically the US Supreme Court confounds its critics and prognosticators. The recent case of Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastic Corp. (decided 3/22/2011) provides an instance where the employee came out ahead in his challenge of his employment at the US Supreme Court.

In the Kasten case, the employee Plaintiff claimed that Saint-Gobain, the employer, was not properly paying employees, failing to pay them for time they spent getting into and out of their work clothing, which a prior court had ruled the employer must pay for. Mr. Kasten claimed that after he told supervisors orally about the pay practice being improper, he claimed that he was retaliated against and fired. Kasten brought a lawsuit under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), which has a provision that forbids firing someone who “files any complaint” regarding claimed illegal pay practices.

In a lengthy decision, the Supreme Court, led by Associate Justice Stephan Breyer, joined by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, and four others, construed the language of “filed any complaint” to include filing by making a complaint orally. The Court took into account the everyday realities, that when employees make complaints, 95% of the time it is going to be an oral complaint, and it is only rarely that employees get around to writing up complaints and filing them. Thus, to carry out the remedial purposes of the FLSA, the Court broadly construed the language and reversed a decision in a lower court that had thrown out Mr. Kasten’s case, because the courts below found that “filed any complaint” meant file in writing with some kind of government official, which probably less than 2% of any employees making complaints ever would do.

While it is encouraging that the Supreme Court in the Kasten case recognized everyday realities, and gave broad protection to employees making both oral and written complaints, it would be erroneous to assume that the Supreme Court will continue to protect or stand-up for the rights of consumers and employees. Anyone with questions about this case, or how it may apply to the facts of your own situation or possible case, please contact William Bloch by emailing william@lasuperlawyers.com.