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What Counts as a Complaint under the Fair Labor Standards Act? - Part 2

In our last post, we discussed the background of a Fair Labor Standards Act case before the Supreme Court that dealt with alleged worker retaliation and the definition of "filing a complaint." In this post, we will discuss the arguments the Supreme Court heard in the case.

The attorney representing the former plastics worker said the Fair Labor Standards Act was designed to protect the poorest and least educated workers in the country. He said, "Coal miners, factory workers, line workers they don't write memos." The plastic worker's attorney said that if the Court did not allow complaints to be made verbally, it would disproportionately affect workers who do manual and low-wage jobs.

The language at issue is in the Act's anti-retaliation provision. The provision states an employee who "files any complaint" is engaged in a protected activity. The former plastic worker's attorney went on to argue that the words of the statute were written to have a broad construction that includes the ability to make oral complaints. He argued the word "any" means "any."

Justices Alito and Sotomayor pressed the worker's attorney on his argument and questioned him about a workable standard for what it means to file a complaint. The worker's attorney explained that a complaint could be made outside of the workplace and that filing means the complaint should be directed toward an individual that can do something about the issue.

The opposing attorney made a more narrow argument by explaining the provision only covered written complaints filed with the government and not within a private company. Justice Ginsburg informed the opposing attorney that she thought that when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938 it protected all workers and was meant to protect poor, illiterate and workers who did not speak English. According to a brief supporting the former plastics worker, almost 100 percent of complaints are verbally made to supervisors.

Source: National Law Journal, "A Word Puzzle for Justices in Job Bias Case," Marcia Coyle, 10/13/10

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