The Family and Medical Leave Act imposes liability for interference by the “employer” with leave rights. Typically, the disgruntled employee asserts FMLA claims against the company employing him or her, but the Act also imposes individual liability on supervisors who interfere with the employee’s FMLA leave rights. Earlier this month, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that a human resources manager who processed the plaintiff’s FMLA claim fell within the definition of employer under the FMLA, and therefore can be held personally liable for alleged violations.
In Graziadio v. Culinary Inst. of Amer., the plaintiff requested and received FMLA leave to care for a child with a serious health condition. On her date of return to work, a second child suffered a broken leg, and the plaintiff requested additional leave, including intermittent leave. The employer contended that the employee never provided medical information certifying the need for intermittent leave despite multiple requests. When asked by the plaintiff for specific information needs, the human resource manager allegedly refused to provide details, informing the employee that it was her obligation to provide complete information without guidance from the employer. The plaintiff filed suit against CIA and the human resource manager under the FMLA after the employer terminated her employment based on abandonment.
The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, including a determination that the manager was not an employer liable under the FMLA. The Second Circuit reversed this decision, remanding the case for jury trial. The court used the “economic reality” test from FLSA cases. Under this test, an individual manager is a statutory employer if he or she possesses the power to control the employee. While the human resource manager did not set the plaintiff’s schedule or pay, she did have substantial influence over the decision to terminate her employment. In addition, the manager controlled the plaintiff’s ability to return to work from FMLA leave. Given this level of control, a jury could conclude that the manager was an employer as defined under the FMLA.
In most cases, the employer will defend human resource managers who are personally sued absent evidence of misconduct in the administration of FMLA leave. However, even if the employer mitigates the financial impact of the suit, participating as an individual defendant can be disruptive and distracting. This case points out the need for human resource professionals to carefully follow FMLA rules with regard to employee eligibility determinations, for personal as well as company risk management reasons.