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A director of human resources who was terminated after repeatedly complaining about shortcomings in wage and hour compliance can proceed with a retaliation claim under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), according to the 9thU.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Alla Rosenfield was hired by GlobalTranz Enterprises Inc. in April 2010 as manager of human resources. In 2011, she was promoted to HR director. Rosenfield raised concerns about FLSA compliance on multiple occasions, making at least eight verbal complaints to management and raising the issue in at least 27 reports. Despite her job title, Rosenfield did not have responsibility for ensuring GlobalTranz’s FLSA compliance. Rosenfield’s supervisor retained responsibility for corporate wage and hour compliance.
GlobalTranz terminated Rosenfield’s employment on May 31, 2011, five days after Rosenfield submitted documentation of GlobalTranz’s continuing FLSA compliance issues to her supervisor.
Rosenfield sued GlobalTranz for retaliation under the FLSA. The district court granted summary judgment to GlobalTranz, characterizing Rosenfield’s compliance concerns as vigorous advocacy on behalf of GlobalTranz’s employees rather than a complaint protected by the anti-retaliation provisions of the FLSA. Rosenfield appealed.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit overturned the district court, holding that the district court failed to properly analyze Rosenfield’s role as a manager. Under the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision, a complaint must be “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.” An employee’s managerial role is often important when determining whether that employee has made a complaint that triggers retaliation protections.
The 9th Circuit recognized that a manager’s role in an organization will impact whether a statement about legal compliance can be fairly viewed as a complaint. Rosenfield’s role at GlobalTranz was particularly important because, despite her title as director of human resources, Rosenfield did not have responsibility for ensuring GlobalTranz’s FLSA compliance. As a result, Rosenfield’s advocacy on behalf of GlobalTranz’s employees could not reasonably have been understood to be part of her job duties and was instead an assertion of protected legal rights under the FLSA.
Rosenfield v. GlobalTranz Enters. Inc., 9th Cir., No. 13-15292 (Dec. 14, 2015).
Professional Pointer: To avoid a potential retaliation claim, an employer should not discipline or terminate a manager who has raised legal compliance issues without first determining whether that manager’s complaints are protected under state or federal law.
John T. Ellis is an attorney with Ufberg & Associates, LLP, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Scranton, Penn.
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