Under federal law, employees are protected from retaliation after filing a complaint alleging a violation.
In a decision on Tuesday, the Supreme Court determined that employees are not required to submit written complaints about illegal workplace conditions in order to qualify for retaliation protection from their employers.
The case which gave rise to the ruling involved a man who was fired from his job with Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics after orally reporting that the clocks were in the wrong place. Subsequent to his firing, the position of the clocks was changed.
The man later sued his former employer under the Faire Labor Standards Act. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals returned an appeal decision saying that, in order to receive protection, workers filing complaints about workplace conditions must write them down.
Earlier today, that decision was overturned in a 6-2 vote. The court reasoned that in order for a complaint to fit the anti-retaliation provision, it must be "sufficiently clear and detailed for an employer to understand it." Such a standard, the court said, is capable of being fulfilled by oral complaints. Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented, saying the provision applied only to formal, written complaints.
The decision is considered by many to be a setback for businesses, making it easier for an employee to sue an employer after suffering retaliation for making an oral complaint.
Washington Post, "Supreme Court says employee complaints don't have to be written to get retaliation protection," 22 Mar 2011.
Los Angeles Times, "Supreme Court delivers two setbacks for business," David Savage, 22 Mar 2011.