Ninth Circuit Reverses Employer’s Motion for Summary Judgment Victory on FLSA Retaliation Claim

Ninth Circuit Reverses Employer’s Motion for Summary Judgment Victory on FLSA Retaliation Claim

By Ryan Nell and Jenna Leyton-Jones

Defendant Global Tranz Enterprises (“Global Tranz”) provides transportation and trucking support services throughout Arizona. Plaintiff Alla Rosenfield (“Plaintiff”) was hired in April 2011 as Global Tranz’s Manager of Human Resources.  In early 2011, she was promoted to Director of Human Resources and Corporate Training.

On at least eight separate occasions throughout her employment, Plaintiff reported to Global Tranz’s management her belief that the company was not acting in compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). While Plaintiff worked in Human Resources, monitoring compliance with the FLSA was not her responsibility.  Rather, that responsibility fell on her supervisor, who was not pleased with Plaintiff’s complaints.  Not long after being instructed to stop commenting on the topic, Plaintiff’s employment was terminated.

Plaintiff sued, claiming that she was retaliated against on the basis of her complaints regarding alleged FLSA non-compliance. Specifically, she relied on the FLSA’s prohibition of an employer from discharging an employee because that employee “filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding . . . or has testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding, or has served or is about to serve on an industry committee.”

Global Tranz filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiff’s alleged complaints were not sufficiently clear and detailed to the point that a reasonable employer could have understood them as assertions of rights protected under the FLSA. The trial court agreed, granting Global Tranz’s motion.  Plaintiff appealed.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (“Ninth Circuit”) took a closer look at the “fair notice” test espoused by Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., which states that an employer “must have fair notice that an employee is making a complaint that could subject the employer to a later claim for retaliation.”  In order to determine whether a complaint has been made, there must therefore be “consideration of the content and context” of the alleged complaint.

In light of this standard, the Court held that, because monitoring Global Tranz’s compliance with the FLSA was not specifically one of Plaintiff’s job duties, a reasonable jury could find that Plaintiff’s complaints about alleged FLSA non-compliance provided Global Tranz with requisite “fair notice” that Plaintiff was making an FLSA-protected complaint.  As this presented a question of fact, the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded for further proceedings.

While the Rosenfeld decision marks a technical victory for FLSA retaliation plaintiffs, its lack of clarity prophesizes a need for further guidance.  Unless the judiciary presents potential litigants with a bright-line rule on the standard for “filing a complaint” in the context of FLSA retaliation claims, employers are unlikely to succeed on motions for summary judgment.