Retaliation for FLSA overtime case or legitimate dismissal?

by on April 2, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Anti-retaliation provisions under FLSA law cover internal documentation

P.J. Neuberger didn’t like when people around the office referred to her as a “receptionist.” After all, her business card said “Research Analyst.” Plus she’d been classified as an exempt employee in FLSA law, so she felt she had good reason to reject the receptionist label – as well as some of the demands that came with it.

P.J.’s job description called for her to answer phones, file documents and keep the office organized. It didn’t actually say anything about research. But she liked the better-sounding title.

She wasn’t doing her job

Maybe that’s why she balked when her boss, Neal Gordon, criticized her for failing to report to work by 8:30 AM – when the phones began to ring. P.J. responded to Neal’s criticism with a blistering letter to him. In her letter, P.J. insisted that she was a research analyst, not a receptionist. And she threatened to initiate an FLSA overtime case. “If I’m a receptionist,” she wrote, “then you owe me overtime pay because receptionists are non-exempt.”

Neal invited P.J. to his office to discuss the letter. “P.J.,” he began, “regardless of your job title, when you were hired you agreed to perform the duties listed in this job description. You agreed to work from 8:30 until whenever the workday was done. You understood there was no overtime pay. Look, if you can’t make it in by 8:30 sharp, your job will be in jeopardy.”

After she continued to arrive late in the mornings, P.J. was dismissed. On her way out she was handed a final paycheck that included more than $1,600 in overtime pay. That amount was even more than she was entitled to for all the weeks during which she’d put in more than 40 hours since she began with the company.

P.J. sued. Her claim: She’d been fired in retaliation for the letter she wrote in which she threatened to sue under FLSA overtime law.

Did P.J. win in court?

Yes. P.J. won a round in court.

At first, a district court dismissed P.J.’s FLSA overtime complaint, but an appeals court tossed out the district court’s summary judgment and ruled in favor of P.J.

At issue for the appeals court was whether the act of writing and sending the letter that threatened to sue was “protected activity” in FLSA law.

Here’s what the FLSA law says about discrimination: “It shall be unlawful for any person to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this chapter.”

An internal letter qualifies as a complaint.

In this case P.J.’s employer challenged her retaliation suit, arguing that merely writing an internal letter didn’t qualify as “filing any complaint” within the meaning of FLSA law.

Rather, it argued that FLSA overtime law prohibits retaliation only against employees who file a complaint in an official court proceeding.

In reaching this decision, the appeals court said that the clear intention of the FLSA was not just to protect employees lodging “legal” complaints, but also internal complaints filed with the employer.

As a result, the court found that P.J.’s letter was sufficient to trigger the protections of the anti-retaliation provisions of FLSA law.

Cite: Valerio v. Putnam Associates, Inc., U.S. Court of Appeals, 1st Circuit, No. 98-1399, 4/9/99. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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