U.S. Supreme Court
Supreme Court Rules Oral Workplace Complaints Are Protected Under Labor Law
Posted Mar 22, 2011 8:54 AM CST
By Debra Cassens Weiss
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that workers are protected from retaliation when they voice complaints about labor law violations, but fail to commit them to writing.
The court ruled for fired Wisconsin factory worker Kevin Kasten, who had complained to his employer that the placement of time clocks discouraged employees from swiping in before they donned protective gear. The decision (PDF) is Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.
At issue is statutory language protecting workers from retaliation if they have “filed any complaint.” In his majority opinion, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the purpose and context of the provision support the conclusion that the oral complaint was protected. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the decision.
Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, and Clarence Thomas joined all but footnote 6 of his opinion. Scalia argued that the “file any complaint” privilege did not apply to any complaints made to employers. The statute contemplates only an official complaint made with a court or an agency, Scalia said.
The majority opinion did not decide the issue of a need for a formal complaint because Kasten's employer did not raise the issue in response to the cert petition.
In footnote 6, Scalia disagreed with the doctrine that agency views are entitled to respect to the extent they have the power to persuade. "In my view this doctrine (if it can be called that) is incoherent, both linguistically and practically," Scalia wrote.