On August 27, 2018, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Sloan v. American Brain Tumor Association, 901 F.3d 891 (7th Cir. 2018), affirmed the dismissal of an employee’s retaliation claim under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) because the employee failed to connect her generalized workplace complaint to alleged violation of the FLSA.
In this case, Jennifer Sloan, an employee of the American Brain Tumor Association (“Association”), complained to the Association’s board of directors after receiving a six-day unpaid suspension from the association’s CEO, Elizabeth Wilson. In her email to the board of directors, Sloan wrote: “I’m not sure if you’re aware of the disciplinary action Elizabeth [Wilson] threatened against me yesterday[,] but it is my understanding that it is against federal law. I am reaching out to you in hopes that the Board will investigate this further.”
Sloan did not receive an immediate response to her email, so she retained an attorney who wrote a four-page letter to the board of directors on her behalf. In the letter, the attorney stated he had “been retained by Ms. Jennifer Sloan for advice and representation regarding recent employment actions taken against her in the workplace and potential legal claims arising from her employment.” The attorney also reiterated Sloan’s “objections to the actions of Ms. Wilson, [and] her belief in the illegal nature of the actions and discipline. . . .” The board of directors forwarded the attorney’s letter to Wilson. Wilson immediately sent an email to the entire staff in which she stated that Sloan was no longer employed by the Association.
After her termination, Sloan sued the Association in federal court alleging that she had been fired in retaliation for complaining of an FLSA violation. The Association filed a motion to dismiss Sloan’s complaint. The Association argued that Sloan’s complaint failed to state a claim of retaliation under the FLSA because her email complaint to the board of directors and letter from her attorney were too generalized to put the employer on notice that she was asserting an FLSA violation. The district court agreed and dismissed Sloan’s complaint.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Sloan’s complaint. According to the court, in order for an employee to bring an FLSA retaliation claim based on an internal complaint to the employer, the 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.” The court found that Sloan’s complaint was too generalized and vague to reasonably put the Association on notice that she was complaining of an alleged FLSA violation. Neither Sloan nor her attorney expressly referred to the FLSA, and it was not clear from her complaints that Sloan was asserting that her unpaid suspension violated the FLSA.
While the court found that Sloan’s complaints were too generalized in nature to support an FLSA retaliation claim, employers should still proceed with caution when determining whether to take adverse action against an employee who has complained of allegedly unlawful conduct.