669 F.3d 428 (4th Cir. 2012), 10-1258, Minor v. Bostwick Laboratories, Inc.

Docket Nº:10-1258.
Citation:669 F.3d 428
Opinion Judge:DUNCAN, Circuit Judge:
Party Name:Kathy P. MINOR, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. BOSTWICK LABORATORIES, INCORPORATED, Defendant-Appellee. Secretary of Labor; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Amici Supporting Appellant.
Attorney:James B. Thorsen, Marchant, Thorsen, Honey, Baldwin & Meyer, LLP, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellant. Nickole Carrieanna Winnett, United States Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., for Amici Supporting Appellant. King Fitchett Tower, Spilman, Thomas & Battle, PLLC, Roanoke, Virginia, for Appelle...
Judge Panel:Before TRAXLER, Chief Judge, and DUNCAN and AGEE, Circuit Judges. Judge DUNCAN wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge TRAXLER and Judge AGEE joined.
Case Date:January 27, 2012
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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669 F.3d 428 (4th Cir. 2012)

Kathy P. MINOR, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

BOSTWICK LABORATORIES, INCORPORATED, Defendant-Appellee.

Secretary of Labor; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Amici Supporting Appellant.

No. 10-1258.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

January 27, 2012

Argued: Dec. 6, 2011.

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ARGUED:

James B. Thorsen, Marchant, Thorsen, Honey, Baldwin & Meyer, LLP, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellant.

Nickole Carrieanna Winnett, United States Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., for Amici Supporting Appellant.

King Fitchett Tower, Spilman, Thomas & Battle, PLLC, Roanoke, Virginia, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

P. David Lopez, General Counsel, Lorraine C. Davis, Acting Associate General Counsel,

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Vincent J. Blackwood, Assistant General Counsel, Barbara L. Sloan, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, D.C.; M. Patricia Smith, Solicitor of Labor, Jennifer S. Brand, Associate Solicitor, Paul L. Frieden, Counsel for Appellate Litigation, United States Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., for Amici Supporting Appellant.

Carrie M. Harris, Spilman, Thomas & Battle, PLLC, Roanoke, Virginia, for Appellee.

Before TRAXLER, Chief Judge, and DUNCAN and AGEE, Circuit Judges.

Reversed and remanded by published opinion.

Judge DUNCAN wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge TRAXLER and Judge AGEE joined.

OPINION

DUNCAN, Circuit Judge:

Appellant Kathy Minor appeals from the Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of her claim under the Fair Labor Standards Act's (" FLSA" ) antiretaliation provision, 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). The district court held that complaints made within a company are unprotected by the antiretaliation provision, and that because Minor alleged only that her termination was in retaliation for reporting alleged FLSA violations internally to her employer, her complaint failed to state a claim. Because we find that intracompany complaints may constitute protected activity within the meaning of § 215(a)(3), we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

I.

A.

Minor was hired by appellee Bostwick Laboratories, Inc. (" Bostwick" ) as a medical technologist on December 24, 2007.1 She remained an employee of Bostwick until May 12, 2008. During this time, she claims to have consistently met or exceeded her job requirements. To wit, Minor reports receiving only satisfactory or above average ratings at her final performance review on April 30, 2008— 12 days before her firing.

On May 6, 2008, Minor and several other members of her department met with Bostwick's chief operating officer, Bill Miller. The purpose of the meeting was to call to Miller's attention the fact that Minor believed her supervisor, Dawn Webber, had willfully violated the FLSA. Specifically, Minor informed Miller that Webber routinely altered employees' time sheets to reflect that they had not worked overtime when they had. At the conclusion of the meeting, Miller told the group that he would look into the allegations.

The following Monday, May 12, 2008, Bostwick terminated Minor's employment. Miller and human resources manager Lori Esposito explained that the reason for Minor's firing was that there was " too much conflict with [her] supervisors and the relationship just [was not] working." J.A. 6. When Minor further questioned the rationale behind her termination, Miller and Esposito explained they had met with her co-workers and " had determined that she was the problem." J.A. 7. Minor asserts that she never had any conflict with her supervisors, that she had never been reprimanded or written up, and that the alleged conversation between Miller, Esposito, and her co-workers never took place.

B.

On June 1, 2009, Minor filed a complaint against Bostwick in the United States District

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Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Relevant to this appeal, Minor alleged that Bostwick had terminated her employment in retaliation for engaging in protected activity as defined by the FLSA's antiretaliation provision, 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3).2 The alleged protected activity consisted of Minor's report to Miller concerning the alteration of the time sheets and the resulting lack of overtime pay during the aforementioned May 6 meeting. Minor sought compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney's fees.

On July 6, 2009, Bostwick filed a motion to dismiss the retaliation cause of action under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. The district court framed the issue as whether " an employee's informal, intra-company complaint regarding possible FLSA violations by her employer qualif[ies] as a protected activity under ... the FLSA's anti-retaliation provision." Minor v. Bostwick Labs., Inc., 654 F.Supp.2d 433, 434 (E.D.Va.2009). It answered the question in the negative, reasoning that although our prior precedent did not firmly establish whether intracompany complaints were protected under the FLSA's antiretaliation provision, the plain language of the statute indicated that a formal, official proceeding was required to invoke the clause's protection. Because Minor alleged only that she was discharged in retaliation for reporting alleged FLSA violations internally to Bostwick management, the district court granted Bostwick's motion to dismiss on August 10, 2009. Minor timely appealed.

II.

The sole question presented by this appeal is whether an employee's complaint lodged within her company— as opposed to a complaint filed with a court or government agency— may trigger the protection of the FLSA's antiretaliation provision. This is an issue of first impression in this circuit.

Section 215(a)(3) of the FLSA makes it unlawful for a covered employer to " discharge or in any 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, or has testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding." Minor contends that an employee who complains of FLSA violations to her employer is protected from retaliatory firing because she has " filed any complaint" within the meaning of the antiretaliation provision.

In support of her position, Minor argues that the Supreme Court's recent decision in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., --- U.S. ----, 131 S.Ct. 1325, 179 L.Ed.2d 379 (2011), requires us to hold that intracompany complaints are protected activity within the meaning of § 215(a)(3). Bostwick, in turn, contends that Kasten has no effect on this appeal and that our prior precedent— specifically Ball v. Memphis Bar-B-Q Co., 228 F.3d 360 (4th Cir.2000)— compels the conclusion that intracompany complaints are unprotected. In the alternative, both parties argue that the plain language of the statute supports each of their respective positions. Without the benefit of Kasten, the district court found Bostwick's plain-language argument persuasive, dismissing Minor's complaint because of its conclusion that the plain meaning of § 215(a)(3) is

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that intracompany complaints are not protected activity.

We review the district court's Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of Minor's complaint de novo. Robinson v. Am. Honda Motor Co., 551 F.3d 218, 222 (4th Cir.2009). Upon review, we disagree with the district court that the plain meaning of § 215(a)(3) dictates that intracompany complaints are not protected activity. Instead— although we do not believe Kasten is directly controlling— we find the Supreme Court's reasoning in that case to be persuasive here. Following it, we hold that although the language of § 215(a)(3) is ambiguous, the remedial purpose of the statute requires that it protect from retaliation employees who file intracompany complaints.3

A.

We begin by examining the Supreme Court's decision in Kasten and its effect on the question presented here. In Kasten, the Supreme Court considered whether the petitioner's oral complaints to his employer qualified as protected activity under the FLSA's antiretaliation provision. 131 S.Ct. at 1330. In doing so, it began with the text of the statute. Id. at 1331. Focusing on the word " filed," the Supreme Court took into consideration dictionary definitions of the word; its use in state statutes, administrative regulations, and judicial opinions; and other appearances of the word in the FLSA. Id. at 1331-32. It concluded upon review that the word " filed" does not unambiguously require a writing. Id. at 1333. It also found that a comparison of the language in § 215(a)(3) to broader language in other statutes' antiretaliation provisions did not answer the question of whether Congress intended to limit the protection of the FLSA's antiretaliation provision to written complaints. Id. at 1333. It concluded that " the text, taken alone, cannot provide a conclusive answer to [the] interpretive question." Id.

After determining that the text of § 215(a)(3) was ambiguous, the Supreme Court went on to conclude that Congress intended the antiretaliation provision to cover oral complaints. Id. First, it found that the FLSA's remedial purpose required a broad interpretation to achieve...

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