Can Employers Blow Off Complaints That Aren’t In Writing?
In a case that’s nearly too crazy to believe, a boss who pulled a gun on a worker got a pass in court, while the worker was dinged for not filing a form
If you think your work conditions are tough, you should be thankful that you weren’t Darnell Greathouse on October 14, 2011.
That’s the day Greathouse decided to confront his boss once and for all. Greathouse was used to the late paychecks and confusing payroll deductions. But no paychecks at all? Well, that was too much to ask.
Melvin Wilcox, Greathouse’s boss and part owner of JHS Security, had repeatedly told Greathouse that his paychecks were coming. But by October 2011, months had passed without any compensation.
Greathouse confronted Wilcox. He explained that he needed to be paid for his work as a security guard. Wilcox replied, “I’ll pay you when I feel like it.” Then, without warning, Wilcox drew a gun and pointed it at Greathouse.
Greathouse left and did not return. Now, nearly three years later, he is still battling his former employer in hopes of achieving justice.
Yes, this case is dramatic. Thankfully, most compensation disputes don’t result in situations like this one. But the fact is that many American workers quietly stew about being underpaid, too afraid to speak up out of fear of losing their jobs.
Let’s take a look at how retaliation claims can play out in wage and hour disputes and what the law says about employee rights.
Your Right to Fair Compensation
With few exceptions, most American workers are covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This governs the standards for minimum wage and overtime pay.
Under the FLSA, it’s unlawful to retaliate against a worker who has filed a complaint related to the statute.
So in the scenario above, yes, it would initially appear that Greathouse should’ve been protected against retaliation for his complaint. In Greathouse’s case, the retaliation took the form of effectively being forced to quit (or “constructively discharged,” in legal terms) after his boss aimed a gun at him.
Of course, most of the time, retaliation is not quite as extreme. For example, a worker might be
- forced to take an undesirable shift
- denied a promotion
- subjected to behavior designed to force him or her to resign
- terminated, sometimes for a supposedly unrelated reason
No Paper Trail
The first time Greathouse went to court, he was hung out to dry on a technicality. The company’s counsel alleged that Greathouse’s complaint didn’t qualify for retaliation protection under the FLSA.
Reason: He’d only made an oral complaint. The company’s legal team argued that in order for Greathouse to be awarded damages for retaliation under the FLSA, he would’ve needed to submit a formal, written complaint to a government agency.
The judge agreed. Score one for the company.
But Greathouse’s legal team came back swinging. On appeal, they cited a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court decided that an oral complaint could suffice as protected activity under the FLSA under certain circumstances.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court stated that an oral complaint is adequate when it 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 statute and a call for their protection.”
Using this framework, the appeals court ruled that Greathouse was not obligated to make a formal, written complaint to a government agency in order to invoke FLSA protection from retaliation.
Greathouse now has one legal hurdle left. The case was sent back to a lower court to determine if his complaint meets the criteria spelled out by the U.S. Supreme Court.
(The case discussed here is Greathouse v. JHS Security, Inc.)
What It Means to Employees
While federal law provides certain kinds of protections to employees, things can get complicated quickly, as Greathouse’s case demonstrates. That’s why it’s a good idea to speak to an attorney who has experience in FLSA issues if you believe that you haven’t been treated in accordance with the law.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation to find out more about your rights.