Second Circuit Overrules Lambert Decision, Expanding Workers’ Rights

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On April 20, 2015, in Greathouse v. JHS Security Inc., the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overruled Lambert v. Genesee Hospital, thereby expanding workers’ rights to protect employees from retaliation for oral complaints made to their employers. In this landmark decision, the Second Circuit considered the effect of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. on Lambert with respect to what constitutes “filing a complaint” under the anti-retaliation provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The Second Circuit held that a complaint does not need to be written or directed to a government agency to trigger FLSA protection.

The FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision prohibits an employer from discharging or discriminating in any manner “against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint … related to” FLSA provisions. The FLSA protects employees from, among things, the failure to receive minimum wage pay, overtime pay, and timely wage payment. In Lambert, the Second Circuit interpreted the anti-retaliation provision to mean an employee must have filed a written complaint with a government agency to trigger its protection. This interpretation was at odds with the United States Department of Labor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, ultimately, the rest of the United States Circuit Courts, which held that employees are protected whether the complaint is made orally or in writing and whether the complaint is internal or to a government agency.

In Kasten, the Supreme Court held that oral as well as written complaints satisfied the anti-retaliation provision. The Court reasoned that an interpretation that limited the provision’s coverage to written complaints would only undermine FLSA’s basic objectives to prohibit “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.” In the years prior to the passage of FLSA, illiteracy rates were particularly high among the working poor. As a result, the National Labor Relations Board recognized that requiring employees to write grievances would be a substantial hardship on them. Accordingly, the Court found troubling that Congress would want to limit the enforcement of FLSA’s effectiveness by “inhibiting use of the [FLSA’s] complaint procedure by those who would find it difficult to reduce their complaints to writing.…” Additionally, limiting the scope of the anti-retaliation provision to the filing of written complaints would take away needed flexibility from those government agencies charged with FLSA’s enforcement, preventing agencies from using “hotlines, interviews, and other oral methods of receiving complaints.” The Court held that to fall within the scope of the anti-retaliation provision, a complaint only must be sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of rights protected by FLSA and a call for their protection. The Court did not consider the issue that the plaintiff did not complain to a government agency, but to a private employer.

In Greathouse, the Second Circuit noted that although the Kasten Court declined to specifically address whether retaliation for a complaint made to an employer is actionable, the decision “cast doubt” on Lambert’s second requirement that an employee’s complaint must be made to a government agency to fall within FLSA’s anti-retaliation protection. The Second Circuit added that an interpretation of the FLSA that “excludes clearly stated complaints from protection because they were made to the employer instead of a government agency would run counter to the broadly remedial purpose that the Kasten Court instructed FLSA serves.” Looking anew at the statutory language, “filed any complaint,” the Second Circuit agreed with its sister courts that it could be interpreted to include complaints to employers. Using tools of statutory interpretation, including the purpose of the FLSA and giving some degree of weight to the interpretations of the agencies changed with enforcing it, the court held that the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision applied to complaints to employers.

The Kasten and Greathouse decisions are victories for all who work under FLSA protection. If you have complained about your rights under FLSA and suffered retaliation, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.