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Court Finds that Complaint to Supervisor about Overtime is Considered Protected Conduct under the Fair Labor Standards Act

By on May 20, 2016 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments

The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) is the federal wage and hour law and due to its complexity, employers often have questions as to what protections this law provides to employees in the workplace. In Childs v. Universal Cos.,no. 15-3507, 2016 U.S. Dist. Lexis 53929 (E.D.Pa April 22, 2016), a recent case from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the Court analyzed what type of employee behavior is considered “protected conduct” under the FLSA.

Facts

Maurice Childs (“Childs”) was employed by Universal Companies (“Universal”) as a building engineer and was paid overtime when he was required to work over forty hours a week. In May 2013, Childs was promoted to head engineer. After Childs was promoted, his supervisor, Ms. Hinson, informed him that he would no longer be eligible for overtime pay.  Ms. Hinson explained that Childs’ hourly wage was too high and if Childs were to be pad for overtime, he would be taking away available funds from other employees. Childs’ responsibilities often required him to work more than forty hours per week. When this happened, Ms. Hinson would change Childs’ time cards to prevent him from receiving overtime. Childs was also required to work without pay on Sundays.

In September 2014, Childs made an internal complaint to his human resources representative (“HR”). Childs explained that he needed to work more than forty hours per week to complete his job duties and that his supervisor was changing his time card. HR told Childs that in order to keep his job, he needed to do what his supervisor told him to do (clock out and finish his work without payment).

Childs claims that after he complained to HR, his employer harassed him by issuing frivolous disciplinary write-ups. Childs was then terminated in April 2014 after Childs called Ms. Hinson and advised that he was sick and could not come to work and after he sent an e-mail to Ms. Hinson and HR again complaining about overtime and payroll.

Childs brought suit again Universal claiming violations of the FLSA, including retaliation. Universal filed a motion to dismiss Child’s retaliation claim, arguing that Child’s communications to his supervisor and HR do not qualify as “protected activity” (filing a complaint) under the FLSA. Under the FLSA, filing a complaint is considered statutorily protected activity but the FLSA does not define the word “complaint.”

The Court found that precedent, although not directly on point, indicates that the word Complaint in the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision should be interpreted liberally. In 2011, the Supreme Court found that an employee engages in protected activity under the FLSA anti-retaliation statute when the employee’s complaint is “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 the statue and a call for their protection” Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Perf. Plastics Corp., 563 U.S. 1, 14 (2011).  When the Court reviewed the facts from Childs’ case, it found that a reasonable jury could find that Childs’ complaints to Ms. Hinson and to HR were sufficiently clear assertions of rights protected by the FLSA. It was not necessary for Childs to explicitly refer to the FLSA when making his complaint in order for it to be considered “protected conduct” under the law. Moreover, the Court held that Childs’ reports to his supervisor regarding non-payment of overtime were necessary to the effective assertion of employees’ rights under the FLSA. Thus, Childs’ reports were considered “protected conduct” under the FLSA.

What does this mean to employers?

An employer must be careful when taking adverse action against an employee who previously brought forth complaints about overtime or pay practices.  Although an employee is not completely protected from adverse action once he/she engages in protected conduct under the FLSA, an employer must be sure that a non-retaliatory reason exists for the adverse employment action before such action is implemented.  As is always the best course of action, seek advice from legal counsel when taking employment action against an employee who has previously engaged in protected conduct.

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