in a significant employment law case, the Fourth Circuit ruled last Friday that an employer may decline employment to a prospective employees due to her having made FLSA charges against a previous employer. The case, decided 2-1 over a strong dissent from Judge King, is Dellinger v. Science Applications International Corp.
Dellinger had sued her then current employer for a Fair Labor Standards Act violation, and applied to the Plaintiff, Science, during the lawsuit proceedings for a new position. Science offered Dellinger a job, and requested that she inform it of any civil actions to which she was a party as a condition of her security clearance. Upon learning of the FLSA charges, Science withdrew its offer. Dellinger sued, alleging that Science had taken its action in retaliation to her FLSA charge.
Her case was dismissed by the district court, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed.
The FLSA prohibits retaliation "against any employee" who has sued to enforce the Act. The Act defines an "employee" as "any individual employed by an employer." Judge Niemeyer, after wading through other provisions of the FLSA, held that "Dellinger could only sue Science Applications if she could show that she was an employee and that Science Applications was her employer." According to the majority, no court has extended FLSA’s anti-retaliation protections to prospective employees.
Dellinger argued that a ruling against her would give prospective employers the license to discriminate against prospective employees for having made FLSA claims in the past. Judge Niemeyer said that he was "sympathetic" to this argument, but that:
The notion. . . that any person who once in the past sued an employer could then sue any prospective employer claiming that she was denied employment because of her past litigation would clearly broaden the scope of the FLSA beyond its explicit purpose of fixing minimum wages and maximum hours between employees and employers. We are, of course, not free to broaden the scope of a statute whose scope is defined in plain terms, even when "morally unacceptable retaliatory conduct" may be involved. Ball v. Memphis Bar-B-Q Co., 228 F.3d 360, 364 (4th Cir. 2000).
Op. at p.9.
The holding was "that the FLSA gives an employee the right to sue only his or her current or former employer and that a prospective employee cannot sue a prospective employer for retaliation."
Judge King retorted that the Supreme Court had repeatedly acknowledged the "vital role" that anti-retaliation provisions play" in regulating a vast range of undesirable behaviors on the part of employers." Op. at 18. He said that the majority had disregarded the "definitive" principles of statutory construction outlined by the Supreme Court in Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337 (1997). The Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit in that case, saying that a former employee could sue for retaliation under Title VII.
In the absence of the Supreme Court taking this case, employers in the Fourth Circuit are entitled to reject applicants who have a history of suing their employers for FLSA violations without fear of being sued for retaliation under the Act.